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Thursday, Dec 18, 2014
Politics

Scott touts an education plan without much to it


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Tribune/Scripps Capital Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Rick Scott unveiled his proposed education budget five months earlier than normal, his political opponents were quick to cast the move as an election-year stunt.

Scott is in a heated campaign against Democrat Charlie Crist, and education is a central issue in the Nov. 4 general election. Normally, a governor’s proposed spending plan isn’t released until January.

He is asking the Legislature to pass a $19.6 billion education budget, which would be the largest overall spending plan in history.

Hours after the announcement, the Republican Party of Florida was sending email blasts touting the record request to support education.

As it turns out, there isn’t much to the plan.

The proposal to provide money for Florida’s 2.6 million public school students contains few specifics, including anything as basic as its overall amount or how much state money is involved.

When the Tribune/Scripps Capital Bureau asked for a breakdown of the $19.6 billion number, Scott’s office said it would include “almost $11 billion” in state money and $8.6 billion in local funds.

His office, though, could provide no further details.

The specific amount of Scott’s $19.6 billion plan should be an 11-digit number. So, what’s the exact amount?

“More information will be available when the governor releases his budget in January,” said John Tupps, a Scott spokesman, when asked.

It means as Scott starts to campaign on the fact he’s calling for a record education budget, no specific plan exists.

When pressed for a specific number, which would be a public record, Tupps told Tribune/Scripps: “You have all the detail available right now.” He gave some variation of that answer in response to multiple questions about Scott’s proposed education budget.

Scott’s campaign — not his taxpayer-funded governor’s office — rolled out an education platform Monday that identified $110 million in specific spending proposals for needs such as school safety and digital learning. That’s less than 1 percent of the overall education budget. The platform gives no further details about the overall size of Scott’s request.

Scott’s budget proposal does include a specific per-student spending level of $7,176. Scott has said that equates to $50 more than the per-student record set in 2007 — a fact pointed out in a news release unveiling the plan.

Crist, the Republican governor in 2007, has used that record per-student spending level on the campaign trail when highlighting his education record. Scott’s staff members didn’t immediately respond to questions about how they reached an exact per-student spending number without an exact overall education budget figure.

Scott’s office couldn’t say how much the “almost $11 billion” number is compared with the budget he signed into law in June, which contains $10.6 billion in state funds.

As for the $8.6 billion in local funding, the exact increase isn’t known but the current level sits at $8.2 billion, a number that consists of the “required local effort” — the amount school districts must kick in from local property taxes. The figure also includes discretionary taxes levied by some districts.

The required portion has become a campaign issue. Education funding was increased by $574 million in the current year’s budget, but the required local effort is up by roughly $340 million. That led Scott’s political opponents to say he raised property taxes to pay for the increase.

Because that increase was driven by rebounding property values, not a hike in the tax rate, Scott has pushed back on those claims.

When applied to the $8.2 billion in the current year’s education budget, the Scott proposal relies on roughly $400 million more from local taxpayers. The current budget’s required local effort sits at $7.1 billion. Using that number, the Scott plan represents a $1.5 billion increase.

Scott’s office could provide no elaboration.

Tupps did say Scott isn’t calling for an increase in the required local tax rate. That means any boost from local taxpayers would again be the result of higher property values.

Matt.Dixon@naplesnews.com

(352) 233-0777.

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