Advocates Decry Fla. Budget For Children

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Advocates for children’s issues are looking to the 2012 election, vowing to hold Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature accountable for cuts in the budget to services that help children.

The 2011-2012 budget cuts $1.35 billion in K-12 classroom spending – $542 per student – to the state’s lowest level since 2006.

While lawmakers spared the Healthy Families program, which supports good parenting, and added 22,000 slots to KidCare, the low-income children’s health insurance program, they slashed Healthy Start, which provides prenatal care, by 11.5 percent. The state’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program took a $30 million hit.

“We did not do well,” said former lawmaker Sam Bell, a lawyer-lobbyist whose focus is public health and children’s issues. “You can say we didn’t do badly…but it was not a good year.”

“It just seems like they’re – even more than usual – balancing the budget on the backs of kids,” said former state Rep. Loranne Ausley, a Tallahassee Democrat who lost to Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater in November and has long been an advocate for spending on children’s programs.

Other advocates said that given the need to resolve a $3.8 billion financial shortfall and the loss of federal stimulus money, children’s services held their own this year.

“Better than I hoped,” said Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon and chair of the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Services.

Storms was relieved that the Legislature, dominated by Republicans, had transferred the Guardian ad Litem program, which p-provides volunteer representatives for abused and neglected children in court, from a non-recurring item, which needs a new source of money every year, to a recurring line item.

“That’s a battle we’ve been fighting for a while,” she said. “Now we go back for more.”

David Wilkins, the Scott administration’s secretary of the Department of Children and Families, was also pleased. While the agency’s budget was cut, and it recently announced it will have to reduce its workforce by around 500, Wilkins has said no frontline child welfare worker positions will be eliminated.

“We got almost everything we were pushing for,” said Wilkins. “I’m very pleased that we have what we need to protect those kids.”

Wilkins said the Legislature had funded his agency’s child safety requests – which, in the wake of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona’s death on Feb. 11, included additional child protection investigators and technological improvements. The state’s 20 community based care organizations were also fully funded, Wilkins said, and lawmakers approved adoption subsidies and children’s mental health and substance abuse services.

Among the dismayed, however, is Sen. Nan Rich, the Senate Democratic Leader. Although adding 22,000 more low-income children to KidCare is important, she said, the state still ranks 49th nationally, with 17.8 percent of its children uninsured. No state ranks lower in children’s access to dental care. But lawmakers rejected Rich’s efforts to insure for free the offspring of state workers or take other steps to qualify for more federal funds for children’s health. And cuts to hospitals will also fall on the young.

“Children’s hospitals were cut four percent,” said Rich. “That’s very hard for them to make up, because they have 67 percent Medicaid patients.”

Rich also pointed to the $5.4 million reduction in Healthy Start funding, which she said will cut into services, not just administration.

“We think [the reduction] will mean there will be higher infant mortality rates and higher low-birth-weight rates,” said Ann Davis, executive director of Capital Area Healthy Start. She added that economic pressure on families also takes its toll on such figures. “The economy is very much involved in all of this.”

The day before session ended, David Lawrence, co-founder of the Children’s Movement of Florida, started a radio campaign blasting lawmakers for “shoddy and shameful” treatment of children. Last fall he’d led a statewide tour on children’s issues, culminating in a list of legislative priorities. Lawrence met with Scott twice before his election, then with Senate President Mike Haridopolos, House Speaker Dean Cannon and other lawmakers.

“Every time, I was told, ‘We are with you,’” Lawrence said. “But they are not with us.”

When the budget was approved, Lawrence said, children’s advocates were “disappointed, dismayed and discouraged. Frankly, I’m sitting here fielding e-mails from a bunch of people who are, to be honest about it, feeling angry at being disrespected.”

Now Lawrence is leading the charge to hold state leaders’ feet to the fire. Tops on his list: restoring the $30 million that was cut from VPK.

When Scott announced vetoes of $615 million in budget line items and spending authority on May 26, he said, “I’m confident that most of us agree that school funding is far more important than spending these dollars on alligator marketing, or boat racing or anything else that the Tallahassee insiders think is so important.”

“Pardon my skepticism, Gov. Scott,” Lawrence said. “If education were truly a high priority to those in power in Tallahassee…[h]ow is it that Florida's infamously underfunded voluntary pre-kindergarten program is being forced to absorb a 7 percent decrease in the already low per-child funding?”

The Children’s Movement has an email list of 250,000, which has grown by roughly 15,000 since the end of session. Lawrence hopes it will reach one million within a year.

“This is about building a long-term movement,” he said. “It was never intended as a one-year wonder.”

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