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Tax Increase Or No? Lawmakers Start Sparring Over Ed Funding

Credit peoriapublicradio.org

For the past several years the Florida House and Senate have battled over how to pay for public schools. Now the House is drawing a red line over what it will and won’t do when it comes to deciding how to appropriate those funds.

Public schools are funded through a share program between the state, school districts and property owners. The state kicks in dollars, and homeowners do too, by steering a portion of their local property taxes to the pot which goes to their school district. In recent years, the state share of money has dropped while the local share has increased. But state education commissioner Pam Stewart told a panel of lawmakers in December that there’s not enough state money to account for Governor Rick Scott’s proposed increase for public school funding:

“Should property taxes increase as we suspect they will, that allows us to be increase this budget to historic levels. We would find ourselves woefully short because there is not enough state funding to bring those increases.”

RLE is short for required local effort—the local share of the public school pie. State lawmakers have waged this battle now for years-- whether to use an increase in property values—and therefore revenue—to fund an increase in the education budget. Governor Rick Scott’s funding plan is contingent on that increase and Senator Joe Negron says he and the Governor are of the same position:

“We stand with Governor Scott on this issue, that property values rising is a good thing.”

Not on the same page is Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who, in his opening remarks to house members, addressed the issue head on:

“We won’t raise them directly, we won’t raise them indirectly, we won’t allow the RLE to be passively raised," he said.

“It’s a debate the Senate wants to have, and if they want to have it, we’ll have it. Because no matter where you go, ask any individual, any city any county and they’ll tell you, it’s a tax increase anytime government takes more from you this year than they did last year and it’s through no account of your own.”

Negron is taking an equally firm view, but adds there's always room to negotiate.

“I feel strongly that utilizing revenue that comes from property values increasing that that’s not a tax increase. That’s how the Senate feels and I expect the Senate will pursue that direction. And if the house has a difference of opinion—that’s why you have a house and a senate. And as we showed last session, we managed to work it out.”   

Public schools in Central and South Florida are seeing an influx of students coming in from Hurricane ravaged Puerto Rico, in addition to an increase in students in general. And that means greater demands on funding at a time when the state is trying to manage recovery costs for a busy hurricane season.

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