School funds: Fool me once ...

Backers of the state property tax plan say schools won't lose. Sound familiar?

Published June 24, 2007

To homeowners eager for property tax relief, but nervous about cutting money for public schools, Florida's elected leaders are saying: Trust us.

That could be a tough sell in a state where a lot of people still remember what happened with the Florida Lottery.

Two decades ago, voters approved the lottery after being promised that its profits would enhance education spending. Then people learned lawmakers were using lottery money to replace education funding, not adding to it.

The outrage -- still reverberating today -- undermined legislative credibility. And it will likely factor into the debate over the "super homestead" constitutional amendment that could cut as much as $7-billion from school funding over four years.

The Republican architects of the property tax plan are vowing to hold schools harmless but haven't said how they will replace the money stripped from tax rolls. Many Democrats aren't buying their pledge, saying this could be the largest education cut in state history.

The interest groups that rally for public schools aren't sure what to believe.

"There's just a lot of 'what-ifs,'" says Dawn Steward, legislative chair of the Florida PTA, which has not taken a position. "We're talking about the future of our children's education."

Republican leaders say their track record is strong: This year, when the state had less money to spend, they made sure education received the largest increases.

"The Legislature, by some, has been tried and sentenced already," says Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, the next House speaker. "That's very unfair."

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Sansom remembers all too well the cynicism generated by the lottery bait and switch. He was a legislative aide at the time. No issue generated more angry calls to his office, he said.

The main gripe: People had been misled.

Newspaper accounts showed that the percentage of state money being spent on schools kept going down as lottery dollars flowed in. Before the lottery, the state spent about 60 percent of its general revenue on education. Ten years later, it was down to about 50 percent.

Embarrassed lawmakers quickly moved toward greater transparency, restricting lottery dollars to specific areas, including the Bright Futures scholarship program and classroom construction.

But the damage was done.

"The Legislature will do the right thing or the people will replace them," Sansom says, noting that Democrats controlled the Legislature when the lottery deception unfolded.

The stakes could be even higher this time around.

The Legislature has proposed a two-prong fix for the state's broken property tax system. The first forces local governments to roll back taxes and caps their future growth. Schools were left alone this year. Still, education advocates worry about counties and cities cutting services for children and schools.

The tougher cuts come from the second piece of the plan, a supersized homestead exemption that needs 60 percent approval to pass in a Jan. 29 referendum. This would reduce the tax base for everyone, including schools, which account for about 40 percent of the property tax bill.

A legislative analysis pegged the maximum losses for education at $7.2-billion by 2011. The real figure is likely to be less, because homeowners will have the option of staying under the current tax system.

To keep schools whole, lawmakers would have to find as much as $1.6-billion to $2-billion annually. That sounds huge, but is considerably less than the $3.4-billion Florida will spend in the coming year just to hire teachers and build classrooms to lower class sizes.

Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, is comforted by the fact that school funding is protected under the state Constitution.

"We're going to work with the Legislature to make sure that we're held harmless," he says. "The minute we're not, then there are no more rules."

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Others are worrying. In Broward County, School Board members are mounting a campaign to warn people about the consequences of voting for the property tax amendment.

In Hillsborough, School Board member Candy Olson says of the Legislature, "I don't trust you any more than some guy I meet in a dark alley."

Pinellas School Board member Jane Gallucci says she has spoken to people who are skeptical, and with good reason.

"The question is surfacing again: We voted for the lottery and now you're telling us, 'Trust us with your children's education?'" she says, criticizing lawmakers for not producing answers during their recent special session. "What a way to run a state."

The debate threatens to divide voters along party lines. Not a single Democrat in the Legislature voted for the new homestead exemption.

"What is the old line?" Senate Democratic leader Steve Geller says, laughing at the question of trust. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

The teachers' union, the Florida Education Association, also wants more assurances.

"Holding us harmless keeps us in the lower 40s and 50s in some of the rankings," says spokesman Mark Pudlow. "There needs to be discussion about some sort of dedicated revenue source that will fund education."

There is speculation lawmakers might expand gambling. They could look at sales tax exemptions or dip into trust funds. Another school of thought: Reducing taxes would help the economy, making up for the education losses.

Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, dismisses any concern that schools could suffer.

"The real story is where else do we have to look to make those cuts," he says.

It's not just K-12 advocates who are worried. While they don't depend on local property taxes, Florida's colleges and universities fear they could pay the price for shortfalls at the lower grade levels.

At Florida State University, president T.K. Wetherell recently decided to freeze enrollment in the face of the uncertainty. A former House speaker who served during the lottery controversy, Wetherell laughs at the notion of "trust us."

"Even when the Legislature was doing what we thought they ought to be doing, I've never seen people trust government," he says. "I just don't think that message is going to fly."

Times staff writers Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler, Steve Bousquet, Thomas Tobin, Donna Winchester and Alex Leary and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.