By TIM NICKENS and DIANE RADO
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- Legislative leaders have agreed to spend a little more money on public schools and force Bright Futures scholarship winners to take several tests to help them finish college faster -- and potentially save the state millions.
Budget negotiators said Friday that per-student spending will rise by 4 percent next year, one of the smaller increases in several years. The increase still is more than initially proposed by the House.
But the deal came with several strings attached by House leaders.
Some $152-million will be spent on bonuses for teachers. But to reach that amount, legislators agreed to transfer $60-million that had been earmarked for teacher recruitment and retention programs.
The Senate also agreed to accept House Speaker Tom Feeney's proposal to require Bright Futures scholarship winners to take several tests to try to win college credits so they can graduate faster. Feeney estimates that the program eventually could save the state $32-million a year, but university officials question that estimate. Gov. Jeb Bush said the state won't realize significant savings for at least three years, when the first students who take the tests would start graduating early.
But university officials raised questions about how many students could pass the "CLEP" examinations in English, humanities, mathematics, natural sciences and social sciences. Students who qualify for the most popular Bright Futures scholarship need only a 970 SAT score, which is below the national average. If they flunk the CLEP tests, the state won't save money.
The agreements were announced as legislative leaders inched closer to an agreement on a state budget of more than $50-billion that also provides for $175-million in tax cuts.
Meanwhile, environmentalists complained Friday that legislative leaders tentatively agreed to transfer $75-million that had been earmarked for the popular Preservation 2000 land-buying program and use it for the Everglades restoration project. That would free up general tax dollars that had been earmarked for the Everglades restoration to help pay for education and social services.
Negotiators will continue through the weekend to nail down the details, and there is still hope they will finish in time for the Legislature to adjourn on schedule Friday.
As Republican lawmakers congratulated each other on their progress, others complained about their priorities. University officials complained that although public schools made modest spending gains, universities were facing their worst budget in a decade. They contended that they would wind up millions of dollars short in covering the costs of thousands of new students.
Senate President John McKay was unmoved.
"Those folks usually have an abundance of money anyway," the Bradenton Republican said.
Under Feeney's proposal, which the House debated Friday, Bright Futures students would be required to take at least five CLEP tests no later than the second semester of their freshman year, starting in 2002-03. Advanced Placement exams and International Baccalaureate examinations from high school could satisfy the new requirement.
"I don't see any down side," said Steve Uhlfelder, a member of the Board of Regents. "We need to figure out what people know, give them the credit and let them move on."
But university system Vice Chancellor Debi Gallay said other university officials have concerns about the testing program. Universities and community colleges will have to pay for the testing, and that money will be wasted if students flunk the tests.
Bush said the state will have a year to work out the testing program. "I think it's a good concept," he said.
Budget negotiators also agreed to about 4,200 state job cuts, about the same number Bush had proposed. About 1,100 of those jobs are in human resources departments that would be privatized. But those state jobs won't be touched until state officials develop a plan that is approved by legislative leaders, and the cuts would be phased in.
More than 390 other jobs that would be cut are vacant.
McKay also predicted that the final budget deal would not include cuts advocated by the House that would reduce Medicaid money for eyeglasses and hearing aids for the poor.