Public Service Funding Mystery Series Episode 6 – What should our priorities be?

We are fortunate to have so many wonderful people and organizations who develop ideas of what should be done in the social service arena and how best to do it. There is no shortage of good ideas. There is, however, a shortage of funding necessary to implement all the good ideas. That fact makes it essential that we identify the highest priorities and assure that they are adequately funded.

The question is, what should the Legislature’s priorities be in serving Florida’s citizens? Child welfare should be Priority One, specifically the protection and education of children. Clearly, the health of our children should be included in Priority One, but that huge issue is beyond the current scope of this effort, which focuses on the services provided by K – 12 Public Education, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) andthe Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

Following the top priority logic, these three departments should be adequately funded. Unfortunately, that is not the case nor has it been over the past twenty years. The funding shortage history of each of the three departments is documented in earlier voter education episodes.

The departments and agencies most severely underfunded are often those whose personnel expenses make up a high percentage of total expenses whether they are paid by the department or are employees of private contractors. The ability to pay the level of compensation necessary to recruit and retain the personnel needed to overcome deficiencies caused by chronically high turnover and/or excessive workloads is the single most important factor affecting a department’s ability to consistently provide first class service.

Over the past 20 years, while the funding of K – 12 Public Education and the DCF increased in actual dollars, it declined in relation to both inflation and as a percentage of the total state budget. Even worse, the DJJ budget declined in actual dollars from $720 million in 2000-01 to $593 million last year.

In the case of K – 12 Public Education, the approximate amount of additional funding needed to reach an adequate level can be calculated by comparisons to the funding of other states using statistics collected by nationally recognized organizations. That number is a shocking $6 to $7 billion!

Comparable statistics are not available to calculate the additional funding needed by the DCF and DJJ, forcing the use of less precise estimates. Based on how far below market average salaries are for their personnel, a 10 – 15% increase in key areas of the budget would seem to be the minimum required to make an impact. That calculation would result in a $150 – 225 million increase in the $3.3 billion DCF budget and a $60 – 90 million increase in the $593 million DJJ budget.

The Florida Legislature, like every other state and the U.S. Congress, is led by the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate. Those two positions hold the powers of appointment of legislators to committees and most importantly appointing members of the majority party as committee chairpersons. Their use of that power operates to control the actions of the various appropriations committees which handle the details of the budget. What can be done to reorder the legislature’s priorities? The answer is simply that voters must demand it of both the leadership and of their own representatives.