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    Senate committee rejects its budget for school needs

    School districts may have to raise taxes to give schools what they need, said the panel, unhappy over education funding.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 14, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- Dissatisfied with how little money was earmarked for education, a key Senate committee rejected its own budget plan Wednesday and said local districts may have to raise taxes to give schools what they need.

    Members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education voted just minutes after Florida State University President Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte warned that he'd have to shut his doors to new students next year without more money. "If this budget were to pass, we'd have to start cutting off students," he said.

    But the committee's solution -- raising the amount of money required of local school districts by about $640-million -- brought swift reaction from Gov. Jeb Bush and House Speaker Tom Feeney and could set up another showdown between them and Senate President John McKay.

    Feeney simply shook his head and smiled.

    "I don't think the House will support any tax increase," Feeney said. The House education plan doesn't ask more of local districts, and actually provides more funding per student than the Senate plan, according to House education appropriations chief Rep. Evelyn J. Lynn, R-Ormond Beach.

    A spokeswoman for Bush said the governor also would oppose the Senate committee's solution if it shows up in the final Senate budget plan.

    McKay said through a spokeswoman that he's still considering it. Where the measure will end up is unclear, but once again the Senate appears diametrically opposed to the House and Bush's office on a tax issue.

    In recent weeks, both Feeney and Bush have announced their opposition to McKay's flagship plan to overhaul the state's sales tax exemptions. Shortly thereafter, Bush withdrew his plan to privatize the state's personnel services after another Senate committee refused to approve it.

    Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, and other GOP senators insisted Wednesday their education budget vote would not have changed even if McKay had Bush and Feeney's support for his tax plan. "I said I would not in my final year in the Senate vote for a budget that was deficient in education," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor.

    Sullivan said the issue is simply that neither the Bush plan nor the Senate plan as drafted provides enough money for education.

    The Senate plan as drafted actually provides about $245-million less for education than Bush's, but Sullivan said that's because Bush doesn't propose funding millions in required programs in his plan. If Bush doesn't count that money in his budget, "then he's got an advantage against us," Sullivan said.

    When asked about those items during a workshop Monday, Bush budget director Donna Arduin said Bush set aside a fund to distribute later among new initiatives, and to cushion the blow in case state economists deliver more bad news next month. But Sullivan said that answer doesn't satisfy him, and that he doesn't want to build a budget around "maybe" they will have more money.

    March 8 is the day state officials meet to agree on how much money the state will have to spend next year.

    The last time this conference met it declared that the state faced a deficit of nearly $1-billion.

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