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Florida editorial roundup

- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

March 7

Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal on state of the Sunshine State:

We heard from Gov. Rick Scott last week. And we heard from former Gov. Charlie Crist in response. The state of the state speeches are little more than shallow political ritual. Signaling the beginning of another legislative session, they come and go like starting bells to a school day. And unlike the lofty addresses of history's greatest leaders, we will little note nor long remember what was said last week in Tallahassee.

So today, in pursuit of the true state of the state, we shun the futile search for substance in modern politicians. We look instead to the recently published study from the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University, "Tougher Choices: Shaping Florida's Future." Authored by economists from The Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida, the report is a deep read. It's thoughtful. It's data-based. And the UF-FSU alliance that gave birth to the report is a stronger symbol of cooperation and unity than anything coming out of the legislature. So from Jimbo Fisher to Billy Donovan, Floridians of all allegiances should take heed.

The report is a sequel to a 2005 study from the Collins Institute titled "Tough Choices" that determined our state was overly reliant on the housing market while ignoring investment our public schools, higher education and statewide infrastructure. Sadly, the update finds that the decade-old warnings fell on deaf ears, and the state has degraded due to that inaction. Hence this report's title: "Tougher Choices."

The past still haunts us. The 2005 report - despite warning about the housing market - did not foresee how bad it would get. Now, we have a state tax base that's stretched thin, leaving little room to pay for the improvements that we need in education, infrastructure and our environment.

The study says raising the state sales tax by a penny or two would not create an unreasonable burden or economic inefficiency. It also proposes the tax on Internet purchases and application of the sales tax to gas purchases as potential avenues for broadening the entire sales tax base.

Of course, that would require a populace and politicians bold enough to approach the idea of raising taxes of any kind. Again, "Tough Choices."

Overall, the report is not rosy, but it is realistic. Maybe the most foreboding warning it presents is the condition of our public schools.

Florida's K-12 per-student spending and teacher salaries are lagging not only behind the United States, but perhaps more troublingly, behind the South. It finds that Florida's class-size amendment has not produced the intended results. More teachers were hired at the expense of teacher salaries, which thereby reduced teacher quality - a cycle that the report claims is worsening ...

So where do we get more money to fix our schools that are falling behind?

Essentially, the study proposes removing some of the restraints of The Florida Education Finance Program that is intended to equalize educational resources across all 67 Florida districts. The report says:

"Allowing districts that choose to do so to charge additional (unequalized) discretionary millage sufficient to bring per student spending in their districts up to the national average would help .. This would allow districts that want to fund education to do so without having to convince the rest of the state that the investment is worthwhile."

It's a compelling idea worth serious discussion that falls on the side of local control and community accountability ...

Online:

http://www.pnj.com

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March 11

The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla., on saving taxpayer money:

Taxpayers should thank Faith Alkhatib, the Flagler County engineer who discovered a way to save the U.S. Department of Transportation $600,000 while also preserving 12 acres of land that belong to Palm Coast and the county.

Alkhatib was reviewing drainage-rule changes issued by the St. Johns River Water Management District in October when something caught her eye. The rules would enable a change in the construction of the $10 million interchange at Interstate 95 and Matanzas Woods Parkway.

The plans call for a diamond-shaped intersection to access I-95 for both north and south lanes. Construction is due to begin in the fall, so Alkhatib's discovery came just in time. A resulting project redesign will cost $600,000 less, and use less land.

Palm Coast and Flagler County were each ready to donate 6 acres of land for a retention pond. But the pond wasn't needed, according to the water district, and Flagler County leapt on the news. Not only will taxpayers save $600,000, but the city and county can now use the land for other purposes.

We don't often hear of how a federal project saved money just before construction. What taxpayers often hear of is all the federal debt they owe, and how after all these years, the federal budget deficit is still not down to reasonable levels.

So it's welcome news that civil servants such as water district officials and Alkhatib were at the helm.

Because of their research and efforts, the federal government and Flagler County cut costs of an important project, the interchange at I-95 and Matanzas Woods Parkway.

Taxpayers from coast to coast would like to see more such discoveries and efficiencies. Maybe then the federal government can get the budget deficit down to zero.

Online:

http://www.news-journalonline.com

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March 10

The Miami Herald on tax funds for private and religious schools:

Florida's legislative leaders are eager to amp up the state's school-voucher program, which gives tax credits to businesses that fund disadvantaged children's scholarships to private schools. Greased with political support and PAC money, a proposal to increase the $286 million program by $120 million over four years is wending its way through committees with few signs of a hitch, which is bad news for public-school supporters.

Florida's school vouchers, called the Tax Credit Scholarship program pays for about 60,000 students to attend private schools, of which more than 80 percent are religious. However, this is money that, in effect, has been denied to the public-school system and the state's general revenue.

Florida's school-voucher program has a Catch-22 aspect: Vouchers were created to allow parents unhappy with their local public schools' performance to enroll their children in private institutions using money contributed by corporations, which then get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit; in turn, this means fewer state tax dollars collected that could have been spent to improve ailing public schools, giving parents ever more reasons to keep seeking vouchers.

Almost 10 years ago, the Editorial Board saw the increased competition as a good thing, admonishing public schools to improve the quality of education they provided. And, to a large extent, that is what happened, as school grades in many districts attest. As a result, parents should be less inclined to pull their kids out of public schools - and the state should be less inclined to give away to private schools even more millions of dollars that could benefit state revenue.

But, given the money and clout behind the proposed increase, scantly funded opponents face an uphill battle ... big money talks loud in Tallahassee. A House committee last week voted along party lines to approve an expansion plan that would also include removing some eligibility restrictions for students seeking vouchers and offering partial scholarships to families earning more than $60,000 a year. So much for the "disadvantaged" qualification.

Other proposals in similar bills would allow businesses that contribute to earn credits on their sales taxes, opening up a new revenue stream for the program, and to require students in schools receiving vouchers to take the same standardized tests as students in public schools. This is the one proposal that makes good sense.

Vouchers have their merits, according to the parents whose students use them. Supporters also say that vouchers save the state money because the cost per capita is less in the private schools in the program. But vouchers only account for some 60,000 students in the state, whereas the public schools serve millions of children. Though some funding cuts during Gov. Scott's first year in office have been restored, public schools are still underfunded. Goosing the voucher program may please the few, but it undercuts the many at the same time.

Online:

http://www.miamiherald.com

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