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Why not use Florida Lottery money to boost teacher pay?

The game generates more than $1 billion annually for public education.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has made plain his teacher pay proposal.

He wants about $600 million to raise the minimum salary to $47,500 — a boost to more than 100,000 educators — and another nearly $300 million to offer bonuses to those whose schools improve on annual state exams.

Related: Florida is buzzing about a raise for teachers. Will it happen?

That’s about $1 billion. The Florida Lottery, approved by voters in 1986, generates more than that amount each year for public education. Nearly double that level in 2017-18, in fact.

So perhaps it comes as no surprise that, as has been the case in many debates over school spending since the advent of the lottery, the question has again arose: Why can’t the game cover the cost?

DeSantis relies mostly on reshuffling general funds to pay for his plan.

“If all of the proceeds of the Florida Lottery were used to fund education, as was specified and intended in the constitutional amendment we voted for, would that provide the funds necessary to raise the level of teachers’ salaries in Florida from 46th in the nation?” St. Petersburg resident Meredith Cohen wrote in a recent letter to the Tampa Bay Times. “If so, the Florida Legislature should immediately pass such a statute to attract the best teachers in other states to Florida.”

The idea of tapping into that revenue source has not escaped key lawmakers as they approach their 2020 session, which begins Jan. 14.

“I believe that we should be looking at all current sources of funding in education that may be repurposed for teacher pay,” Senate Education Committee chairman Manny Diaz Jr. said in a text message to the Times.

House PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee chairman Chris Latvala said in an interview he hadn’t heard much conversation about using Lottery money, but added “nothing is off the table.”

Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater.

“If it’s something legal, we will certainly take a look at it,” Latvala said, adding that he expected to release the House teacher pay plan in late January.

Moving the money would not seem to be a problem in principle. The voter-approved constitutional amendment left it to the Legislature to allocate the net proceeds after covering the game’s operations and prizes.

Lawmakers adopted statute in 1987 making clear the intent that the money “be used to support improvements in public education" and not be used as a substitute for existing resources. (Critics have long argued the state has failed to meet the criteria of supporting rather than supplanting, but that’s for another day.)

The spending examples provided in the law included direct grants, salary enhancements, and “any other educational program or purpose deemed desirable by the Legislature.”

And lawmakers have used that authority.

In 1997, for instance, they created the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship and directed that the Lottery money cover the entire cost. It began as a $69.5 million expense, and has grown since, reaching $544.4 million in 2018-19.

That’s more than a quarter of the annual gaming revenue in the Education Enhancement Trust Fund.

It’s also part of the practical reason why conversations about using large hunks of Lottery money in different ways don’t gain much traction. When then-Gov. Rick Scott proposed adding $480 million to teacher pay in 2014 and again in 2015, the Lottery didn’t come up as a suggestion from anyone in power.

Quite simply, much of the amount already is dedicated to other education programs, from prekindergarten through universities, that the Legislature has been reticent to touch.

The fund still is paying millions of dollars toward continued debt service for schools built in the 1990s. It supports workforce education programs, class size reduction and some university student financial aid, among other things.

That’s not to say that lawmakers can’t, or don’t, work around the edges. Over the years, the Legislature has used the Lottery to support initiatives such as classroom technology, preschool and virtual education.

For a few years, the fund covered incentives paid to teachers who earned National Board certification.

Lawmakers also have amended the Lottery spending statutes a dozen times, taking steps such as barring school districts from getting a share if they lack a performance-based salary schedule.

In his own budget proposal, DeSantis acknowledged that at least some of the money is available: He recommended using $169 million to support his teacher bonus program.

Teachers have seen opportunities, too.

Several have called for shifting $134 million in annual “recognition” money that goes to schools with high test results. They’ve labeled the program divisive and unfair, with some pointing out that the amount could pay for a 1 percent raise including pension contributions.

So far, no officials in leadership have moved to touch the recognition program that Jeb Bush established two decades ago.

The idea could come up during the two-month session, though, as lawmakers sift through their teacher pay raise notions and try to craft an approach. Latvala insisted the talk is more than lip service, and said he fully expected to see a compensation increase package by sine die.

“We’re going to put our concerted effort toward it,” he said.

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