Children's advocates say they're "cautiously optimistic" about Gov. Rick Scott's budget recommendations for the coming spending year, which contain relatively few cuts to programs that serve Florida's children.
But they're also wondering why --- with a surplus of more than $1 billion --- Scott hasn't suggested a greater investment in children, one that they say would be more commensurate with his request for $673 million in tax cuts and record spending on K-12 education and Everglades restoration.
Last week, Scott touted his "historic" proposals to increase funding for public schools to $7,176 per student and Everglades restoration by more than $5 billion over the next 20 years, including $300 million in the coming budget year.
In comparison, the governor's proposed boost to voluntary pre-kindergarten of $46 per student would bring the total to $2,483 apiece. That means Florida would remain well below the national average of $4,026 per student in 2013, the last year for which the National Institute for Early Education Research had figures available.
"We applaud the governor for his effort to restore the Everglades," said Children's Lobby spokesman Roy Miller. "We need the same commitment to children."
Miller acknowledged that Florida voters in November required a set level of spending on the environment when they passed a constitutional amendment mandating that a portion of real-estates taxes be devoted to conservation. But he noted that in 2002, Florida voters also passed a constitutional amendment to offer free voluntary pre-kindergarten programs to every 4-year-old in the state.
"It's in the constitution, but it's funded at a fraction of the per-pupil spending level that is allocated for K-12," Miller said. "It seems as if the public policy of the state is: 'Your 5-year-old's a lot more important than your 4-year-old."
Scott also suggested a one-time increase of $30 million for school-readiness programs, which would provide one year of child care for 5,300 children whose families can't otherwise afford it. The governor also recommended $4 million for Help Me Grow, a program that provides information and support to parents concerning childhood development.
Miller also criticized the governor's recommendations for not increasing Healthy Start, the maternal and infant health program begun under former Gov. Lawton Chiles.
Others pointed to $14 million in cuts to the Department of Juvenile Justice and relatively small boosts --- if any --- to children's programs in Scott's $77-billion budget proposal.
"There are some increases, but some are one-time increases, (the) restoration of cuts made last year," said Karen Woodall, executive director of the left-leaning Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy. "And all those things are good, but I'm not ready to say that investments are being made. ... When you rank at the bottom in funding across the board for just about everything, any money that's added can appear to be a large increase."
Last year, lawmakers allocated $18.5 million for 191 new child protective investigators at the Department of Children and Families and $8 million for the six county sheriff's offices that conduct investigations. Department secretary Mike Carroll has said he hopes that filling all those positions will reduce the caseloads for CPIs, as they're known, to an average of 10 apiece.
Scott had wanted even more. Now he's recommending more than $14 million "to ensure that all child welfare workers for DCF, local sheriff's offices and the community based care lead agencies have the training necessary to effectively identify risky situations and develop intervention strategies to protect the safety of vulnerable children."
Miller, whose group has long called for more sheriff's offices to conduct the investigations, praised the move.
Additionally, DCF and the community-based care agencies have requested $15.7 million to reduce caseloads for their case managers to an average of 13 apiece through additional hiring and higher salaries.
"We think that happens this year," said Kurt Kelly, president and CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the community-based care agencies that provide adoption, foster-care and case management services.
Mike Watkins, chief executive officer of Big Bend Community Based Care, pointed to the need for more mental-health treatment for troubled families. He called Scott's proposal "a wise investment, but we have a lot more steps ahead of us to make a difference. Too many children and parents in our state are going without timely treatment --- or treatment altogether."
The Department of Juvenile Justice would receive a $14 million cut in the governor's proposal, which includes a $2.4 million reduction in the prevention and victim services program.
Scott also recommended an increase of more than $1 million for the PACE Center for Girls, a program for young women who face problems at school, at home or with the law. But while CEO Mary Marx is grateful for the funding, she's also concerned that other programs didn't fare as well in the governor's proposal.
"Over the past five years, the department has seen a 55-percent decrease in the number of kids entering the juvenile justice system, as a result of reform efforts and a focus on prevention," Marx said. "Keeping kids out of the criminal justice system and providing them the community-based services they need are essential to their success in the future."
Miller noted while DJJ's budget would be reduced under Scott's plan, funding for the troubled Department of Corrections would be increased by $51 million. The boost for adult prisons comes after reports that inmates were mistreated.
"They're getting ready to make the same mistakes (at the Department of Juvenile Justice) that they made in the prison system," he said.