Effective voter engagement in the political process requires that voters understand how their legislature functions. How does the Florida Legislature operate? Theoretically, it enacts laws in support of the will of the people. However, special interest groups which provide campaign funds often exert undue influence, even when their priorities conflict with the will of the people. Notable examples include: the use of Florida Lottery funds as a replacement for other funding sources rather than the intended supplement to education funding, the refusal to comply with the 2004 “Florida Forever” constitutional amendment which requires annual funding of the purchase of $500 million of environmentally sensitive land, and the long-standing failure to adequately fund public education and child protection services.

In order to govern, power must be concentrated. Once concentrated, power can, and too often is, abused.

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. Unlike the U.S. Congress, all employees of the Florida House are employees of the Speaker and all senate employees are employees of the Senate President, giving those two leaders even more power over individual legislators and their staff. Majority party leaders are able to use their power to intimidate not only the minority party but also their own party members, so that none dare to step out of line. That power operates to control which legislative bills are heard in committee and which ultimately make it to a floor vote. Individual legislators find themselves powerless to produce legislation for their district if their priorities are not on the agenda of legislative leadership.

Unlike the Federal Government, Florida’s constitution requires a balanced budget. As in any budgeting process, funding decisions are, or should be, based on the level of priority of each program. The” fairness” of any budget depends on how well budget priorities match the will of the taxpayers. With over 90% of Florida’s revenues coming from sales tax, other taxes on consumers and funds from the federal government vs less than 5% from corporate income taxes, clearly the priorities of consumers should prevail.

The funding of child protection and education services provided by the Departments of Education, Children and Families (DCF) and Juvenile Justice (DJJ) should be among the legislature’s highest priorities. A factual look at the funding history of these departments clearly shows that the legislature has treated them as low priorities.

On March 19th, the Florida Legislature adopted its 2020-2021 annual appropriations budget which totaled $93.2 billion. The governor’s budget proposal and most of the analysis of Annual Appropriations Budget group the state’s 30+ departments and agencies into seven categories, with the seventh (Judicial branch) so small that it can be combined with General Government. The budget is not final yet as the Governor has a line item veto which can be used to eliminate any of the nearly 800 local projects totaling nearly $500 million.

Over the past 20 years, the Florida Annual Appropriations Budget has grown from $52 billion to $93 billion. A comparison of 2001-02 to 2020-21 follows:

The growth rates show that Health Care – Medicaid has been the priority over the past 20 years. About 60% of Medicaid costs are federally funded but Florida must find revenue to cover its growing 40% share each year. Medicaid’s share of the total budget has increased by 11.50%, reducing the share available to all the other categories.

Education has suffered the biggest decline of 3.14% which in 2020-21 would be a loss of $2.9 billion. The DCF and DJJ have suffered declines of 1.65% & 0.66% which equate to losses of $1.5 billion & $615 million.

The Annual Appropriations budgeting process is a series of competing priorities and difficult decisions.

What can be done to reorder the legislature’s priorities? The “What?” is simply that voters must demand it. The “How?” is the harder question. The answer is success in inspiring more citizens to vote and in educating voters. In Florida, 66% of registered voters voted in the 2016 Presidential election while 55% voted in the 2018 General election. While still well below where it should be, in Hillsborough we are doing better at voter engagement with 71% and 61% voting in 2016 and 2018, respectively.

Once inspired and educated, voters will vote for candidates who share their priorities. The communication necessary to inspire and educate requires that community leaders and organizations speak out loudly and often on the issues.

The non-partisan Florida Tax Watch organization has long done great research in their effort to assure that taxpayers are getting the best bang for their buck.

Who will speak out to the Senate President, the House Speaker and to the Governor? In the past, influential citizens like Paula Dockery, Mac Stipanovich and the Pinellas County Teachers Association (PCTA) President, Mike Gandolfo have consistently spoken truth to power. Ms. Dockery and Mr. Stipanovich still speak out in their opinion columns which are published in the Tampa Bay Times and in Tallahassee newspapers. Mr. Gandolfo is in his last year as President of the PCTA. We need more voices. Most of all, we need more citizens who vote, and more voters truly interested in a full understanding of the issues.

Who else will speak truth to power? Probably not those you might expect to hear from such as school district board members, as those who have dared found themselves massively out funded in their next election cycle. School districts are forced to either remain silent or ask for relatively small dollar or unquantified funding increases. For example, Hillsborough County’s first meaningful Legislative Platform in many years asks for three small increases in specific programs totaling $4.1 million while their requests for increases in teacher pay and capital funding do not identify the dollars needed. Even the Legislative Platforms of the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA) and the Florida Association of District School Superintendents (FADSS.org) speak only in general terms, not identifying the billions needed for teacher and support staff salaries and capital improvement.

However, there are two state organizations which dare to ask for the $6 billion or more in annual funding by which our state trails the national median in K-12 Public Education spending; the Florida School Finance Officers Association, Inc. (FSFOA.org) and its Finance Council, and the Florida Education Association (FEAWEB.org). Both have lengthy position papers on the subject which are great explanations of this complicated topic. And the American Federation of Teachers comprehensive report, ‘A Decade of Neglect’ at aft.org is another good source of background information.