From the Orlando Sentinel, by Jason Garcia
In May 2011, in front of hundreds of cheering supporters in The Villages, under a banner proclaiming “Promises Made, Promises Kept,” Republican Gov. Rick Scottsigned into law a state budget that cut nearly $1.4 billion from Florida’s public schools.
Sixteen months later, the GOP legislators who passed that budget at Scott’s urging are under siege across Florida from Democrats who accuse them of slashing pre-K-12 funding and sacrificing traditional public schools in favor of alternatives such as charter and private schools.
In Central Florida, Democrat Karen Castor Dentel has sent mailers blistering her opponent, Republican state Rep. Scott Plakon of Longwood, as “wrong, wrong, wrong on schools.” In television ads, the Maitland public-school teacher tells voters, “I’ve seen firsthand how Tallahassee is hurting our schools.”
Democrat Frank Bruno, campaigning for a Senate seat that covers parts of Volusia, Lake and Marion counties, has attacked his opponent, Rep. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, for supporting a Legislature that “guts the public schools that middle-class families rely on.”
Similar strategies are playing out in other parts of the state. In a South Florida Senate race between two incumbents, Democratic Sen. Maria Sachs of Delray Beach has a new television ad blistering Republican Sen.Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale for voting in favor of nearly $2 billion worth of public-school spending cuts plus “a voucher scheme that drains millions more.” Television ads for Democratic House candidates fromJacksonville to St. Petersburg to Miami all promise to invest more money in public education.
Expanding on the theme, the Florida Democratic Party this week began distributing fliers on college campuses across the state reminding students that the Legislature also cut $300 million from state universities this year.
Democrats say their attacks are resonating with voters.
“They’re very disappointed, and they’re frustrated, and they have very strong opinions about this,” said Castor Dentel, who is running in a district that includesAltamonte Springs, Maitland, Casselberry and Eatonville.
Even some first-time Republican challengers have attacked the GOP-controlled Legislature’s actions. Marco Peña, a Republican campaigning for an east Orange County House seat against Democrat Joe Saunders, vows in his television ad — which was paid for by the Republican Party of Florida — to “put the brakes on education cuts.”
Bob Brooks, a Republican running in a House district around downtown Orlando against Democrat Linda Stewart, told the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board that he “probably would have” opposed the 2011 budget, even though it was supported by every single GOP legislator in the Florida House.
Republican leaders in Tallahassee have sought to mitigate the damage. The Legislature restored about $1 billion in public-school funding in its 2012 budget, which Scott opted to sign at a suburban Jacksonville elementary school. The governor then launched a summer “listening tour” visiting public schools across Florida.
The new budget has provided some cover for incumbents. Hukill, for example, tells voters on her campaign website that she voted to invest an extra $1 billion in public schools — but never says a word about voting to cut $1.4 billion the year before.
Still, when pressed on the campaign trail, Republican lawmakers defend their 2011 votes as emblematic of the disciplined choices they have been forced to make by a historic housing bust that produced five consecutive years of shortfalls.
“I support education … . But these are very, very tough times,” Hukill said. “Eventually, most things in the budget had to get cut. But education was the first thing we started to restore.”
But Democratic challengers accuse Republicans of presenting a false choice — pitting education against health care and other vital state services — because the Legislature has largely refused to consider new revenues.
For instance, the Democrats say they want to require online retailers such as Amazon.com to collect state sales tax. According to the Florida Retail Federation, which lobbies on behalf of physical retailers such as Walmart and Best Buy, doing that would generate at least $450 million a year in extra tax revenue.
Many also say they want to reform the state’s corporate-income-tax code. They have called for changes that would make it more difficult for multistate companies to shelter income from Florida tax laws, which state economists say could raise an additional $470 million a year.
“It’s a false premise,” said Stewart, a former Orange County commissioner. “They’re unwilling to look at revenue sources.”
The Republican candidates counter that raising taxes would ultimately do more harm than good, sucking money away from businesses and consumers. They say the Legislature’s approach — cutting taxes, repealing regulations and limiting lawsuits — remains the right one.
As proof, they point out that economists now expect Florida to have a small budget surplus next year.
“The answer to most of these needs is to have a strong economy,” Plakon said. “If we focus on building a stable environment where businesses will want to hire people, a lot of these needs that we have will be taken care of.”
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