Record public school spending. Tax cuts for every car owner. Millions more for child safety and Everglades restoration.
That is the message legislators want to deliver as they vote on the $77 billion state budget for 2014-15. Florida's recovering economy generated more than $1.2 billion in new revenue, making it easier for lawmakers to head home happy after the legislative session ends tonight. But they squandered opportunities as they returned to old ways of earmarking millions for projects that were never discussed publicly.
Their education investments don't look nearly so robust when enrollment growth is considered. And their response to crises — from the declining health of the state's springs to the problems in the state's child protection agency — is disappointing. This is an election year budget geared more toward making more voters happy and less about planning for Florida's future.
The deal includes $500 million in tax breaks, but no meaningful tax reform. For average Floridians, the relief will be $25 off auto tag fees and potential benefits from a potpourri of other gimmicks, from sales tax holidays for school and hurricane supplies to pet food bought from veterinarians.
Spending nearly $13 billion for public schools has brought boasts for weeks from lawmakers that this is a banner year for education. In reality, the money amounts to a modest 2.7 percent more per student. That's better than the budget cutting lawmakers did in the early part of Gov. Rick Scott's administration, but at $6,923 per student it is still short of the record $7,126 per student in 2007-08. More egregious, however, is the Legislature's continued under investment in the facilities used by 2.7 million public school students. After three years of no construction money, the state's 67 school districts finally will share $50 million and six rural counties will share another $59.7 million. But far fewer charter schools that serve about 230,000 students will split $75 million. That remains fundamentally unfair.
Lawmakers were a bit more farsighted in higher education, setting aside $250 million in facilities, including another $10 million for the well-vetted and much-needed new building for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's business school. There is another $20 million combined for USF's Heart Health Institute and Morsani College of Medicine. Another $2.5 million is included for a St. Petersburg College science labs and classrooms. Also of note: Lawmakers set aside $200 million in new operating money for state universities, to be awarded based on performance.
But undermining those worthy investments are surprises that popped up in the final days of negotiations. Some $7 million for House Speaker Will Weatherford's alma mater — the private Jacksonville University — morphed into $12 million. Another $600,000 was set aside to endow a professorship at Florida State University in honor of the mentor of Weatherford's father-in-law, former House Speaker Allan Bense. And there are dozens of other favors, from $750,000 to subsidize a lawsuit car dealers have filed against manufacturers to a near-doubling of state money for a charity founded by the daughter of a prominent lobbyist.
Gov. Rick Scott will have plenty of opportunities to use his veto pen. Even as lawmakers invested $249 million in the restoration of the Everglades, they dramatically shortchanged efforts to revive choked and dying springs with $30 million — far less than what Scott and the Senate proposed. Despite alarming reports from the Miami Herald that at least 477 children who had prior contact with the Department of Children and Families died, lawmakers set aside just $21 million for new child protection investigators. That is about half of what the governor requested.
The scene in Tallahassee today will be one of speeches and pats on the back for a job well done. But from everywhere else in Florida, it will be clear that opportunities for smarter investments have been squandered.