$1.1-million goes to schools, but funding requests for health insurance and Medicaid for low-income children get passed over.
By JONI JAMES
Published January 9, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - Florida lawmakers on Thursday lashed out at education officials for bungling the start-up of two Internet public schools, but they agreed to cover the costs of students who should not have been enrolled in the experimental program.
The decision by the Republican-led Legislative Budget Commission to spend $1.1-million to cover the costs of some kindergarteners and first-graders in the Internet schools drew sharp criticism from Democrats.
Democrats argued that the decision amounted to a second violation of state law, because the Legislature never authorized spending money on the 227 kindergarteners and first-graders in the Internet schools who had never enrolled in public school.
State law limits enrollment in the 1,000-student experimental Internet program to previous public school students.
Republicans argued that the Internet students should be able to continue in the same program for the full school year.
But their decision came only after they joined Democrats in criticizing education staffers, particularly general counsel Daniel Woodring. He told the commission the department's mistake was due in part to ambiguous language in the state law creating the K-8 virtual school program.
"It's difficult for me to see how this mistake was made," said Rep. David Simmons, R-Longwood, chairman of the House education budget subcommittee. "I also know that when you are in a hole six-feet down, one of the things you stop doing is digging."
The vote, cast along party lines, was the climax to an unusually contentious and partisan meeting. The commission also approved a $6.7-million bailout of the Department of Education's statewide computer network, and it rejected pleas to increase spending for low-income children's health insurance and Medicaid services.
The vote ends any hope that 89,000 low-income children on the waiting list for state-subsidized health insurance will get it soon.
It also appears to ensure that the Agency for Health Care Administration can proceed with plans to seek federal approval to roll back reimbursement rates paid to nursing homes and hospitals for Medicaid patients.
Child advocates and the hospital and nursing home industry tried to persuade the commission to reverse the Legislature's plan to save some $400-million in federal Medicaid money for next year.
Gov. Jeb Bush and other fiscal conservatives in the Legislature have argued successfully against raising spending now, saying it will only increase costs for next year.
"I was completely disappointed," said Conni Wells, executive director of the Florida Institute for Family Involvement, who brought three North Florida families to the meeting. Each family had children on the child insurance waiting list.
"We elect these people and if we come up with an idea to solve a problem and it's not the right one, I expect them to step up to the plate and find one," Wells said.
Republican legislators contended they did not have the authority to go beyond the state budget, which limited enrollment to nearly 300,000 in the state's KidCare insurance program. That cap was the same as last year.
The authority of the commission was questioned again when Republican lawmakers pushed through the bailout for the virtual school program.
Senate Democratic Leader Ron Klein of Boca Raton argued that the commission had no right to authorize the spending.
But House budget Chairman Bruce Kyle, R-Fort Myers, largely shut down debate after being told by staffers the commission was on solid ground.
"I'm satisfied," Kyle said. "I think it is legal to do this."