Kid’s issues are legislative mixed bag in 2014 session

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Children’s issues — mostly contentious — resulted in a legislative mixed bag for the 2014 session.

With a record $77.1 billion budget, many child advocates believe that lawmakers could — and should — have done more to protect Florida’s vulnerable kids.

“I don’t understand why, in a year when we have a … surplus (of more than $1 billion), we can’t spend more on what we know is foundational for children,” according to Vance Aloupis, statewide director of the Children’s Movement of Florida.

In the end, lawmakers did set aside additional money for child protection and early learning programs, reports Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida, but not as much as agencies first wanted.

Although they passed a major child-welfare reform bill, they also rejected a measure extending low-cost health care to about 20,000 children of legal immigrants.

Lawmakers tacked on amendments to an early-learning bill, which died on the last day of the session.

Aloupis still considers the 2014 session an overall success, even if just for lawmakers committing to take another shot at kids-related bills next year.

“Now we have people in the Legislature championing these issues,” Aloupis told Menzel.

Right up to the wire, lawmakers passed a bill overhauling Florida’s child welfare system, which has been scrutiny after media reports of a series of child deaths over the past year.

SB 1666 passed unanimously through both chambers. If Gov. Rick Scott signs the bill, the state will create rapid-response teams for immediate investigations of child deaths, launch a Florida Institute for Child Welfare for policy research, and form a new position of assistant secretary for child welfare under the Department of Children and Families.

Along with the bill, the Legislature authorized $47 million in added funding for child welfare, linked to a comprehensive human trafficking bill (HB 7141).

It was a mixed session for early learning advocates, with the death of a bill they supported combined with more funding for Florida’s school-readiness and voluntary pre-kindergarten programs.

The 2014-2015 budget included an $8.8 million rise for voluntary pre-kindergarten programs, equating to $54 per student. School-readiness programs, subsidizing childcare to low-income working Floridians, $10.5 million was set aside for a quality-control program and $3 million for added slots.

“For the first time in our history, we established performance-based funding for early learning that mirrors our expectations for K-12 and higher education,” said House Education Appropriations Chair Erik Fresen.

It was the first time in a decade voluntary pre-kindergarten and school readiness programs saw funding increases, but Aloupis denoted that the $54-per-student voluntary pre-kindergarten increase still fell short of 2005-2006 levels.

The biggest loss for children’s advocates was the failure of HB 7 and SB 282, proposals eliminating the five-year KidCare eligibility waiting-period for legal immigrants.

KidCare is the subsidized children’s health insurance program for low- and moderate-income families.

“It was a huge, unnecessary disappointment,” said Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy executive director Karen Woodall told the News Service.

Around 20,000 children would have been eligible for coverage had the bill passed, she said.

Last year’s version did not get a Senate hearing, after estimates by the Agency for Health Care Administration put the cost at $500 million, a number including all immigrant children in Florida.

This year, AHCA initially estimated the bill would cost $27.5 million, later bringing it down to less than $19 million.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.