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Senate budget eliminates direct funding for youth mentoring

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State Sen. Joe Negron, a former budget panel chief, told his colleagues last month in an acceptance speech for his upcoming Senate presidency that the state must do more for its troubled children and teens.

“We should not and we will not tolerate serious wrongdoing by young people but, at the same time, let’s not criminalize adolescence,” he said, according to the Senate Journal’s version.

Most experts agree that after-school mentoring programs, such as those offered by Big Brothers Big Sisters, are effective at helping kids, especially those at risk, to succeed in school and develop social skills.

But the Florida Senate, in its proposed $80.9 billion budget for next year, seemingly has gone to a “dog-eat-dog” approach, telling the state’s mentoring programs that to get funding, they’ll have to fight for it among themselves.

The Senate budget, released Friday afternoon, essentially zeros out funding for individual providers and instead creates a $30 million “competitive grants” program where organizations will have to apply.

Under the Senate plan, money will be awarded by a committee of members appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Andy Gardiner, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, and could include Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and other top officials.

State Sen. Don Gaetz, the Niceville Republican who chairs the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, was unavailable for an interview, his assistant said.

Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta provided a statement from Gaetz: “The grant process is designed so worthy groups can be funded on the basis of their value to children and their results. Our committee is recommending more money in this fund than the total funded for these purposes in the past. (It is) a fairer process based on evaluation of results, not dependent on lobbyists, and (provides) more money for these worthy causes.”

In a Tuesday hearing, Gaetz warned the nonprofits that before they issue calls to “go to the Capitol and burn the place down,” they should realize their funding won’t be “on a line-item basis (but) they’re not being cut.”

When state Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat, questioned the overall education spending plan, Gaetz told him, “The concrete is poured, and it’s hardening … Everything is a zero-sum game.”

Representatives of the state’s nonprofit children organizations say they’re flabbergasted — and feeling betrayed.

“We’ve been getting funding from the Legislature for 19 years,” said Daniel Lyons, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs. “We did everything we were asked to do, so this came out of nowhere.”

The Boys and Girls Clubs mentor about 6,000 children in over 200 facilities throughout the state.

Lyons said converting funding into grants for which each group will have to apply means organizations like his won’t get paid, if at all, until well after the start of the fiscal year on July 1.

“Talk about being bowled over and slapped in the face,” he said.

Jody Clifford, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Florida, said she didn’t immediately know how many youths are in her mentoring programs “but it’s a huge number.”

Having to compete and wait for funding “could have a huge negative impact on the already low-performing children we help,” she said. “We’re absolutely stunned.”

On the other hand, the House proposed budget, also released Friday, keeps a method of direct funding to specific groups with a $14.8 million pot of money.

From it, $2.2 million is slated for Big Brothers Big Sisters, $3 million goes to the Florida Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs, and $6.2 million is for Take Stock in Children, a nonprofit led by Jillian Hasner, wife of former state Rep. Adam Hasner, the House Republican Leader in 2008-10.

Money for mentoring has been decreasing in recent years’ state budgets, going from $30.5 million in fiscal year 2014-15 to $18.4 million for 2015-16.


Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that Senator Gaetz’s “concrete” quote was in response to a question from Senator Ring. It also includes an updated comment on the Senate spending plan from Gaetz.

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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