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Public schools get needed payday

By JONI JAMES and JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published March 27, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Florida public schools are poised to receive their biggest funding increase in at least a decade.

Preliminary state budget plans also provide more funding for St. Petersburg's Dali Museum, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio's downtown Riverwalk project and a new community center for Brandon, hometown of Senate President Tom Lee.

With six weeks left in the 2006 legislative session, the Florida House released its preliminary 2006-07 proposal Monday. The Florida Senate did so on Friday.

Both chambers are expected to approve their plans next week, setting the stage for final negotiations between both chambers.

Passing next year's state budget, expected to top $70-billion, is the only business lawmakers must finish before adjourning May 5.

An initial review of the two spending plans - each nearly 400-pages long - shows that flush state coffers and election-year politics have combined to produce a significant agreements, particularly on education.

And both chambers have left more than $2.3-billion unspent, money that will become crucial in final negotiations.

"We have made an extraordinary committment to education with this budget," said House Budget Chairman Joe Negron of Stuart, a Republican candidate for state attorney general.

The House proposes increasing per-student spending by 6.2 percent next year; the Senate has proposed 8.7 percent. Both are higher than this year's record-setting 6.15 percent increase, and Gov. Jeb Bush's proposed 5.6 percent hike for next year.

An increase would help some school districts with stagnant enrollment, such as Pinellas County, cover increased costs in insurance and electricity, which are growing faster than inflation.

But a key question remains.

The Senate plan is financed by taking full advantage of Florida's higher property values, which would increase school property tax collections nearly 17 percent.

The House proposes to lower the tax rate proposed by Gov. Jeb Bush, meaning tax collection would rise by 8 percent.

On other education matters:

Both chambers provide cash for Bush's controversial merit teacher pay program.

The House has proposed a $14-million college grant program for students who are the first in their family to attend college.

The Senate has no tuition increase for community college students and 2 percent for public university undergraduates; the House proposes 3 percent and 5 percent hikes, respectively.

The Senate plan is slightly more generous in funding facilities and renovations at Tampa Bay area community colleges and universities. One exception is that only the House plan contains $9-million for a science and technology building at University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.

Other areas of the budget have bigger discrepancies.

Senate leaders suggested Monday, for example, that they won't embrace House plans to eliminate a pair of controversial criminal justice programs: youth boot camps and the state Parole Commission.

Tampa Bay area projects also face different support in each chamber.

The Dali Museum, for example, receives $4-million in the House budget but only $1 million in the Senate. Tampa's Riverwalk project receives $1 million in the House and $2 million in the Senate.

And the House plan doesn't include the Brandon center, though Negron allowed Monday that, "Obviously, if this is a local priority of the Senate President, I suspect it will be funded in the conference process."

Both chambers likely will face backlash for their plans to reduce funding for Healthy Kids, the state-subsidized health insurance plan. The program hasn't grown as fast as anticipated.

Nonetheless, Sen. Lisa Carlton, Negron's counterpart in the Senate, anticipates negotiations will go smoothly.

"Philosophically, we have taken the same approach," Carlton said. "We both have left a lot of money on the table. We've both tried to have historic level of education funding. We're not that far apart. We'll get down to details later on."

Times staff writers Letitia Stein and Alex Leary contributed to this report.

[Last modified March 27, 2006, 20:57:02]


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