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Budget writers settle up on school construction funding

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A key budget committee met for the second time on Sunday and hashed out previously unresolved conflicts on education funding, including some $700 million in cash and bonding for construction for K-12 and higher education institutions.

The inclusion of money from bonds is something Gov. Rick Scott – a budget hawk who loathes debt – opposes.  But Conference Committee Chair Rep. Richard Corcoran said it just makes sense.

“Any time you have rates that are this low, you’re getting money for much cheaper, ” said Corcoran, who is next in line to become House speaker. “We’re very cognizant of maintaining a five percent debt ratio, which we have, and I think over a long time we’ll be able to take care of the needs that exist.”

“It’s a good time to do it, and we’re doing it very prudently,” Corcoran added.

Budget writers provided $678 million for the state’s Public Education Capital Outlay fund, which a committee staffer said did not distinguish between cash and bonds. That makes it difficult to tell how much of that is leveraged and how much comes from extant revenues.

Add in a university capital improvement fee, and the total rises to $713 million overall.

In the K-12 silo, funding for traditional public schools and charter schools is evenly divided, each receiving $75 million for construction. That even split is bitterly opposed by some public school advocates, who say lawmakers are depriving those institutions in order to boost privately-run schools.

Reporter Gary Fineout pointed out the budget as currently construed would increase reliance on local property taxes, if a proposal backed by former Education Appropriations Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen passes, as appears likely.

Corcoran denied the issue was a problem. He said any such bill could be amended to make up any shortfalls in state funding. He also pointed out more money is going into education construction funding this year than last.

When asked about another controversial education program – the so-called “Best and Brightest” initiative that would selectively award teachers bonuses based on state criteria including their own scores on standardized tests – conference Vice Chair Sen. Tom Lee denied it would hold up budget negotiations.

“That’s not going to be the hang up,” said Lee.

“The challenges that we have are always trying to figure out how to reconcile the hundreds of projects that are championed by various special interests and members,” said Lee. “That’s the real challenge.”

Two massive central Florida universities – University of South Florida and University of Central Florida – also got a little love from lawmakers Sunday. USF received $25.5 million for its medical school campus in downtown Tampa and an outdated research facility. UCF again got $20 million for a new downtown Orlando campus, funding that was struck down by Scott last year via line-item veto.

Would lawmakers be willing to override that veto this year, serving up Scott the ultimate embarrassment for a governor whose agenda has already fared poorly so far?

“I’m not going to get into hypotheticals,” said Corcoran.

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Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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