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An about-face on school funding

If Florida's children are to get new schools, it's looking like the state lottery will pay the construction tab.

On Tuesday, just a day after a state Senate committee rejected a plan to use lottery dollars to pay for school construction, the full Senate embraced the idea.

Borrowing against lottery dollars already is the cornerstone of the House plan, and Gov. Lawton Chiles has endorsed the idea, as well.

Although both chambers must vote on their school funding bills again today, the Senate's turnaround makes it more likely that the House and Senate can agree on a way to pour more money into public school construction.

The special legislative session on school crowding enters its third day today.

The House is working on a $1.5-billion plan; the Senate is working on a plan that would devote $2.6-billion to build schools. Once both sides take their final votes, a committee of senators and representatives will be appointed to resolve differences in the new plan.

The compromise version then goes before both chambers for final votes by Thursday, and then on to the governor.

"We've got a good bill," said Senate President Toni Jennings Tuesday evening as she adjourned the chamber. "It's going down to the House. Check with us on Thursday," when legislators expect to finish their special session.

"It will all work out," promised House Speaker Daniel Webster.

Although the lawmakers were called to Tallahassee for the purpose of alleviating school crowding, several other issues have cropped up.

Legislators have introduced bills and amendments on issues as varied as school vouchers, money for teachers to buy classroom supplies, and lethal injection as an alternative form of execution.

Still, legislators made some progress Tuesday in the hunt for school construction dollars.

The Senate's about-face on using the lottery to build schools came neither quickly nor easily. Several legislators objected to the notion of using the lottery, which voters approved for educational enhancements, on something as basic as building schools.

Sen. Donald Sullivan, R-Seminole, tried to derail the effort by offering an alternative plan for bonding sales tax revenue.

"The question is whether you're going to save the lottery as a way to enhance education," Sullivan said. "If you go for the lottery tax, you'll never have to talk about enhancement again" because most of the lottery dollars will be spoken for.

Sullivan's proposal fell just three votes short.

Lottery proceeds already pay for pre-kindergarten programs around the state and the new Bright Futures college scholarships program.

Lawmakers are operating under the assumption that there is enough lottery money to also pay off the proposed 20-year bonds for school construction that would pay for most of the Senate's plan.

Sen. John "Buddy" Dyer, D-Orlando, said bonding lottery dollars is the best and most efficient way to provide the most money for school construction.

Although districts rely on lottery dollars for basic operating expenses, both the Senate and House plans would pay those bills with regular tax dollars. The lottery dollars then would be available to guarantee the bonds.

Sen. Jim Horne, who sponsored the funding bill, said he decided to support bonding lottery dollars once he was assured that the Bright Futures scholarships would not suffer as a result.

In the House, Webster's $1.5-billion plan remained intact after a lively debate, in which Democrats accused the GOP of creating big government and stealing local control. An attempt to replace the plan with a $2.6-billion proposal failed.

Pinellas Democrats complained that the plan, which sets certain requirements for counties to qualify for loans and aid to build schools, would give almost nothing to their county.

Rep. Mary Brennan, D-Pinellas Park, attacked a provision to set aside $16.1-million for a "model functional, frugal" middle school.

The legislation does not specify where the school would be built, but the education commissioner would determine where there is a need.

Brennan predicted the model school was a "turkey," or a pet project, for Webster, whose hometown of Ocoee has an old middle school in need of repair.

"Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh," Brennan said, saying the model school's likely location over and over as if calling a turkey. "Ocoee! Ocoee!"