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Gov. Rick Scott and Legislature on collision course over school funding

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's education team is promising a "historic" increase in per-student spending in Florida schools next year.

But to do that, Scott's advisers want to shift more of the burden of paying for schools from the state to local homeowners through higher property taxes, setting up a new confrontation with the Republican-controlled Senate.

"I cannot support this," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who chairs a Senate budget panel that will help write the education budget. "I don't think it's right or fair for Tallahassee politicians to reach around and pat themselves and each other on the back about record per-pupil funding and then make local school boards do the heavy lifting."

Gaetz is a former school board member and elected school superintendent in Okaloosa County.

The state Board of Education, made up of Scott appointees, supports a legislative budget request to boost public school funding by $476 million next year, to a total of $20.2 billion.

All but $50 million of that increase would be paid by taxpayers as a result of higher local property taxes tied to rising property values.

That's a sure sign of a stronger economy, but some legislators say it's still a tax increase.

"This is why people don't trust government," said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who at times has praised Scott's education initiatives. "The state shouldn't take credit for that. The credit should go to those who put the money up, and that's local governments."

Montford, a former elected Leon County schools superintendent and director of a state superintendents' group, said: "(For) anybody who's paying more money this year than last year, that's a tax increase."

The Department of Education budget proposal would increase per-student funding by $104 next year to a new high of $7,209. That would be $83 higher than the previous high mark of 2007-08 when Charlie Crist was governor.

The state also projects 26,000 more students in the system for a total of 2.8 million.

Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart put the rise in property values in positive terms Wednesday when she presented the budget to a House education panel. "Since 2012-13, property values have gone up. That's good news for homeowners and also good news for taxable property," she testified.

But Scott in recent years has increasingly relied on local taxes for schools.

As recently as the 1997-98 school year, the state share of school operations was 59 percent and local taxes made up the remaining 41 percent, according to an analysis by the House Democratic Office that excluded some funding categories such as class size reduction and school recognition grants.

In recent years, the state share has been more or about the same as the local share. But if the proposed budget is adopted, next year's school funding ratio will be 51 percent from local property taxes and 49 percent from the state.

"It's outrageous," said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami. "That is not what the people of Florida expect."

Tensions between Scott's administration and the Senate have worsened in recent months following a series of clashes over health care policy, Scott's budget vetoes and the management of job incentive money by Enterprise Florida.

Disagreement over paying for schools would open a new front in the Scott versus Senate war.

Gaetz is one of several GOP senators who campaigned for Scott but have become alienated from him. The senator plans to mobilize opposition to the property tax increase, saying: "I've been moping about that to my fellow senators."

Gaetz made similar arguments in the 2015 session, but Scott's plan prevailed. State tax money devoted to public schools rose by $286 million in the current year's budget, nearly six times as much as the $50 million the state is proposing next year.

Gaetz's committee will review the budget proposal in an upcoming round of committee hearings the first week of October.

Scott repeatedly says he has cut taxes by more than 50 times since he took office in 2011.

But for most homeowners, the proposed increase in school property taxes would eclipse the $20 in individual annual savings in cell phone and satellite TV taxes that Scott signed into law last spring.

"It's a shell game," said House Democratic leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach. "I hope people realize they're being sold a bill of goods."

Scott will send his budget recommendations to the Legislature in December.

The governor's spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz, noted that the growth in school spending "is a result of the increase in the value of Florida property, which is a good thing."

The property tax share of the school budget is known as required local effort.

By law, the Legislature and governor annually set a property tax rate that all 67 school boards are required to levy on taxpayers. The current rate is about $50 for every $1,000 of taxable value, and many school boards list it on homeowners' tax bills as "schools -- state law."

If the tax rate stays the same next year as expected, the growth in property values would be 5.2 percent, or $85 billion, creating a potential windfall in school spending.

Florida is one of seven states with no personal income tax. The cost of government is borne largely by the statewide sales tax and local property taxes.

The Tax Foundation, a conservative group often cited by Scott, ranked Florida's state tax collections 47th lowest among the 50 states in 2012, in large part because the state has no income tax. But the group also ranked Florida 22nd among the 50 states in state and local property tax collection, higher than all other southeastern states.

Property values are highly volatile. During the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, they declined dramatically.

Scott's own property tax bill on his Naples home has increased each of the past three years, but would decline by about $400 next year, to $102,000.

His home, in one of the state's wealthiest counties, has a market value of $15.4 million.

Times/Herald staff writers Kristen M. Clark and Jeremy Wallace and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

Gov. Rick Scott and Legislature on collision course over school funding 09/17/15 [Last modified: Friday, September 18, 2015 12:38am]
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