Fla. Lawmakers at Odds Over Tax Plan for Schools

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Florida's first Republican-dominated legislature in 122 years got off to a fast start this month, with education high on the agenda.

Both Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles and GOP leaders are calling for higher academic standards, safer schools, and more classrooms. But an anti-tax sentiment among Republican lawmakers could impede passage of the governor's multi-million-dollar wish list for schools.

"The legislature is doing all it can to take the spotlight off money," said Pat Tornillo, the president of the Florida Education Association-United, the state's second-largest teachers' union.

"They're not willing to provide any new money for general school funds or school construction," he said.

In his State of the State Address earlier this month, Mr. Chiles described education as "the primary children's issue that we'll address during this session."

In January, Gov. Chiles presented a $42 billion budget proposal to the legislature for 1997-98 that sets aside some $12.5 billion for overall education spending and $49 million for early-childhood-education programs for poor families.

In his State of the State Address in early March, he asked legislators to approve his education budget and challenged them to address the overcrowding that plagues many of the state's 67 school districts.

"We made room for criminals in our prisons," he told the legislature. "Now, I challenge you to make room for children in our schools."

More than 58,000 additional students have poured into Florida's public schools in each of the past nine years, according to the state education department. Enrollment is expected to swell to some 2.3 million next year and continue growing into the next century. Experts estimate that it will cost about $3.3 billion for each of the next five years to build enough schools to house the state's students, or about 250 new schools a year. But voters have been rejecting property-tax increases at the polls that could pay for the new construction.

To finance the new classrooms, the governor has asked lawmakers to expand the gross-receipts tax--a 2.5 percent tax on utilities--to include water, sewer, garbage, and cable television service. The recommendation originated with the Governor's Commission on Education, an independent panel of business executives and politicians.

According to the commission, the new tax would generate some $1.3 billion for school construction and would cost the average household about $24 a year.

GPA, Tenure Bills

Although the legislative session just got under way this month, the Senate has already passed two education bills. One would require students to achieve at least a C grade-point average to earn a high school diploma. Students currently can graduate with a D-plus average. The other would shorten the time it takes to fire public school teachers, part of a Republican effort to eliminate the job security known as teacher tenure.

Both bills are being debated by the House.

Gov. Chiles, who last year vetoed a bill to raise academic standards because it was tied to a controversial school prayer provision, has promised to sign a "clean" bill this session. ("Chiles Vetoes Bill Allowing Student-Led Prayer," June 12, 1996.)

A spokesman for the governor said he would oppose separate legislation abolishing tenure because it protects teachers from politically motivated or otherwise unfair firings.

'No New Taxes'

Meanwhile, GOP leaders have signaled that while they share the governor's concern for higher standards and more classrooms, they do not favor a tax increase.

''There are not going to be any new taxes [this session]," House Speaker Daniel Webster told the Florida Times-Union newspaper after the governor's State of the State Address.

Mr. Webster said he agreed with the governor's priorities, but he argued that the state could find the money within its existing $42 billion revenue sources.

Republican Sen. Toni Jennings, a former teacher and the Senate president, has not ruled out new revenue sources entirely. But she said she will not support new taxes for school construction unless districts are held more accountable for the dollars that they spend.

Education groups, meanwhile, hope to capitalize on the attention education issues are receiving this session.

Sandy Treager, a teacher and a representative for the Florida Parent Teacher Association, said her group supports the proposal to extend the utilities tax to raise revenue for school construction.

"We need the tools in place for success--good schools, smaller classes, and consistent training and evaluations of teachers," she said.

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