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Merit Pay Moves Forward, Budget Gap Goes Backward

By: David Royse, The News Service of Florida
By: David Royse, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 21, 2011 --

Once you’re over a billion, a couple hundred million more is barely noticeable.

Still, when you’re trying to erase a budget deficit that’s more than $3 billion, you’d prefer to have new numbers come along that make that smaller, getting you closer to your goal.

All in all, a bad week for budget balancers – which is everyone in the Legislature by constitutional mandate.

They must now erase a $3.75 billion deficit in the next six weeks, instead of $3.6 billion. Economic forecasters agreed late Friday that sales tax collections have remained slower than previously expected and that will leave the state with more than $100 million less in incoming tax dollars than lawmakers thought they would have when they started the session.

If the above sounds like the beginning of a question on the FCAT, perhaps that’s appropriate.

Some teachers this week may have wondered whether they may be able to forecast an increase in revenue in their household budget. Teachers with students who do well on standardized tests may soon be able to look forward to the prospect of a merit pay increase thanks to legislation that passed the House this week and went to Gov. Rick Scott.

Then again, they may not.

While the new law – Scott has said he will sign it – will allow districts to give merit pay raises for teachers whose students do well on tests, the change doesn’t come with any money to pay for those raises (see above paragraphs about the budget shortfall.)

The notion that nobody is really likely to get much of a raise anyway didn’t blunt complaints from many teachers or their union that the merit pay bill is unfair. Many said much about student performance is beyond their control, and their ability to make more money may now hinge on whether Johnny ate breakfast on test day, or whether Susie’s parents bothered to make her do her homework.

The merit pay bill was the high profile item of the week, in part because the measure has been so controversial the last two years, in part because it is a huge change in the way teachers are paid, ditching the tenure system in place for years – and in part because it was the first bill this year to go to Scott, the new governor, and the first he will sign.

The jobs governor – who came into office promising to focus on job creation almost at the expense of just about anything else – will likely not sign an economic development measure into law first, but rather a bill some teachers say may make them look for a job out of state. Scott and other backers of the legislation say that good teachers need not worry, only those who can’t find a way to make students learn, which is their job, will see their earning ability hampered.

Some may also see themselves forced out of teaching, as well. The bill also removes a job protection by allowing districts to hire on one year contracts. The bill also will do away with the last in, first out way of laying off teachers, which meant that eager, new teachers were the ones to go when schools have had to shed jobs.

BACK TO THE STATE BUDGET

While the teachers union would say lawmakers were hard on teachers this week, the Senate looked intent on going easier on schools than previously feared, and easier than Gov. Rick Scott would. The Senate spending proposal for education, as it emerged this week, would cut about 2.3 percent per student from its main school budget, which is far less than a more than 7 percent per student cut in early House plans and a roughly 10 percent cut proposed by Scott.

Sen. David Simmons, who writes the Senate’s PreK-12 budget called his plan “roughly level” and said it was a significant statement of the Senate’s belief in the importance of investing in education.

The Senate may be trying to ease the pain for the current users of the education system, but future users got a shock this week when another Senate committee proposed spiking the popular Florida Prepaid program that lets parents lock in tuition and pay it in advance. It’s far from a done-deal, but the idea of closing it to new enrollees was floated in the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee this week.

Doing so would have absolutely no impact on the budget and wouldn’t help lawmakers balance it, because the program gets no state dollars.

But Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, said the state would be on the hook should the program go into the red. There’s no indication that it might, but Lynn noted that the stock market hasn’t been doing very well of late.

“With assets exceeding liabilities every year since inception, the program continues to remain financially and actuarially strong with a funding ratio of 105 percent,” Prepaid program officials said in a statement.

Overall, the Higher Education budget isn’t spared the tough cuts facing other parts of the budget. Because of the ending of federal stimulus money, Lynn’s committee is looking to reduce the higher education spending plan by $320 million. A number of Florida high school students also count on the Bright Futures program that makes it easier for many to pay for college. Lawmakers said again this week they are looking to save money by making it harder to get that scholarship.

The governor ended this week as he says he spends much of every day – trying to drum up economic development to create jobs in the state. Scott left the country for his first “trade mission,” visiting the Central American nation of Panama. One of Scott’s bigger job-creating announcements so far was his earmarking of state money earlier this year for an expansion of the Port of Miami with plans to have it get calls from the larger ships that will now be sailing through the Panama Canal, which is being enlarged. Scott checked on that while in Panama this week, along with meeting with government officials there.


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