Before lawmakers pat themselves on the back for minimizing school budget cuts next year, they should first have to answer to the people in Gov. Charlie Crist's home county. In Pinellas, voters have shown a dedication to public education that ought to shame their uninspired elected representatives. In return, their schools are getting the Tallahassee shakedown.
Here is the ugly reality about the House budget plan released on Sunday: Pinellas would end up with $43-million less next year than the Legislature originally approved for this year. That cut would essentially cancel out the $40-million that Pinellas voters have added to their own property tax bills in an effort to provide the best for their own schoolchildren.
In other words, Pinellas will pay more and could get less.
These numbers are indefensible and speak to the astonishing disconnect between legislative leaders who claim to value public schools and voters who actually do. Remember, Pinellas voters didn't increase just any tax; they hiked their own property taxes. They also did so on Jan. 29, amid the same economic pressures the Legislature now confronts and on the same statewide ballot in which voters were told they needed property tax relief. This was no squeaker, either. The referendum won by more than 70 percent.
In the Capitol, meanwhile, the Legislature and a governor who promised to increase per-student spending by 5.5 percent next year act as though they have no other options but to cut.
Compared with the budget lawmakers first adopted for this year, the House budget would cut school spending statewide by $780-million, or $267 a student, next year. That's $565 less per student than Crist promised only two months ago.
Ask any lawmaker why schools must be made to suffer and expect a trite household metaphor: "We must live within our means." That is true, constitutionally speaking, but is only part of the story. The Legislature has the power to alter the "means" under which it lives, but has used that power in the past decade primarily to reduce the state's income. Just think how the school budget might fare if the state had kept only a fraction of the $15-billion in tax breaks lawmakers granted to corporations and wealthy stock investors.
If the Legislature adopts this school budget for 2008-09, then it will be pretending that teachers won't need raises and buses won't use higher-priced gasoline and health care costs will remain stagnant. It will be pretending that the only way out of this fiscal dilemma is to give schoolchildren less.
Pinellas shows there is another way. The belt that voters in this county were willing to tighten was their own, not their children's. How can the budget writers in Tallahassee turn around and undermine that generosity with a cut that would leave Pinellas schools no better off? Even in this dour economy, voters were willing to put their money where their children are. Why can't lawmakers?