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Castor Turns to Lottery Funds To Finance Florida Schools

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The Florida education commissioner, Betty Castor, has turned to excess lottery funds to maintain her department's budget, staving off some $161 million in scheduled cutbacks.

But the move may set a troubling precedent, the schools chief acknowledged.

Ms. Castor is "very concerned" that the lottery revenues are being used to fund operating expenses of schools, her spokesman said last week. The money is intended to supplement day-to-day operating funds appropriated by the legislature.

"This wasn't the way we wanted to use these lottery funds," said the spokesman, Renee P. Watters. "But if it's all you have, then you have to go ahead and use it."

Ms. Castor's plan--approved by the legislature Nov. 18 while it was meeting in special session to consider transportation issues--allows the education department to use $150 million in excess lottery revenues and $11 million from another school trust fund to restore the cuts.

Gov. Bob Martinez called for the reductions to compensate for lagging revenue collections, which were running about $280 million below projections.

At a cabinet meeting Nov. 9, Mr. Martinez ordered all agencies to reduce their budgets for the remainder of the fiscal year by 4.9 percent.

Ms. Castor's proposal to restore the department's funding passed both chambers of the legislature unanimously. Of the $161 million, $120 million is recurring revenue, while the remaining $41 million is not.

The money was available, Ms. Watters said, because of unusually high sales of lottery tickets. The lottery fund contained about $204 million more than expected, she said.

Some lobbyists and educators voiced reservations about the plan, although they agreed it solves the department's short-term funding problems.

"It was probably the only thing they could have done, given the circumstances," said Ted Granger, a lobbyist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "But certainly the precedent [it sets] is not good."

Last spring, the chamber released a study showing that lottery profits were increasingly being used to replace state aid, reducing education's share of available state revenue. (See Education Week, May 17, 1989.)

Mr. Granger also said the plan may fuel the public's "widely held misperception" that proceeds from the lottery provide ample funding for education.

Only about $1 billion of the education department's $6.6-billion 1989-90 budget comes from lottery revenues, according to a department spokesman.

And an official of the Florida Teaching Profession, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said the use of some nonrecurring money to pay for recurring expenses was regrettable.

'Deep Lard'

Saying that "it appears we're in an economic downturn here," James T. Barrett, a spokesman and lobbyist for the union, predicted the state could face a more severe fiscal crisis next year.

Mr. Barrett said the legislature's unwillingness to raise taxes, coupled with increasing school enrollment, stirs debate between lawmakers and education lobbyists even during times of economic growth. If state tax revenues continue to lag behind projections, he said, the situation could deteriorate quickly.

"We could be in some deep lard," said Mr. Barrett. "The outlook is just not bright."

Nonetheless, he added, the stopgap funding measure may prove useful in the long term as well as in the short term.

"Maybe it will give the educational establishment the opportunity to buy some time, to try to change the attitudes of some legislators," he said.

The legislature will not convene to consider the fiscal 1991 budget until next spring.

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