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Lawmakers Work to Bridge Divide in Education Budget

Public school officials aren't crazy about any version of the Florida budget, but they're hoping the final numbers might resemble the Senate's plan, one that ultimately spends more money per student.

The House and Senate have put forth individual budget proposals for the public school system which, educators say, fall short of what the schools really need. But with a shortfall of more than $3 billion, there simply wasn't enough money to go around, lawmakers said.

“This budget has a reduction, a very minor reduction of per student funding of less than 1 percent,” said Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, about the House spending plan.

In the House bill, student funding is cut from its current level by $52 to $6,814.In comparison, the Senate put forth a per-student funding level of $6,905, a $39 increase.

On a per school level that creates a variety of scenarios. In the House version, the Broward schools get $11 million more in funds, Miami-Dade School District sees roughly a $25.6 million increase in total funds, Duval schools lose about $10 million, Hillsborough schools lose $1.38 million and Orange County School District receive $6 million in additional funds.

By comparison, in the Senate budget, Broward schools see a $38 million increase, Miami-Dade schools receive a $103 million increase, Duval schools lose $14.5 million, Hillsborough loses about $291,000 and the Orange County School District sees a $23.7 million increase in funds.

The major difference between the two bills is on the revenue side. The Senate is relying on the assumption that all 67 counties will enact a .25-mill property tax increase and that the state will receive money from a Seminole gaming compact.

Lawmakers have been negotiating with the Seminole Tribe for more than a year over a potential gaming compact, but still have not been able to come to an agreement. Lead negotiators have said they are close though and expressed confidence that a deal can be reached by the end of session.

The House and Senate will ultimately iron out the differences in their budget through the conference committee process, but first, they must agree on how much money the state has to be budgeted. In addition to the gaming and property tax increase, the overall Senate budget relies on $880 million in federal Medicaid money that has yet to be approved by Congress.

Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, the House budget chief told reporters that the House intends to only rely on “real numbers, actual numbers” rather than potential financial windfalls that haven’t come in yet. The House would like to see a bill signed by the President guaranteeing the Medicaid money and an agreement among all the key gaming figures before it agrees to a budget relying on that revenue.

“I don't think members will rely on speculation to build this budget,” Rivera said.

House Democrats urged their Republican colleagues to include gaming money in the budget to help boost public school funding, which has from $7,143 in 2007 to the current $6,866.

The House has been squeamish when it comes to gaming expansion, but Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, said gaming is already in the state.

“We need to utilize all the resources at our disposal and stop kidding ourselves,” he said.

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