Former Gov. Charlie Crist has portrayed Gov. Rick Scott as taking a chainsaw to the state’s education budget.
Crist, now a Democrat, spoke about education funding in an interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd on Nov. 5, 2013, the day after he announced that he would challenge the Republican governor. (Crist was a Republican governor in 2007 but left the party while running for his failed U.S. Senate bid in 2010.)
"First thing he does when he comes in, Chuck, is cut education by $1.3 billion," Crist said. "That’s an incredible decrease. Then in his second year he decreases funding by $300 million to our state universities."
Scott and his backers have touted teacher pay raises that Scott pushed this year, while the Democrats have attacked him for cuts. In this fact-check we will explain if Scott cut education by $1.3 billion in his first year in office in 2011 and then in the second year cut $300 million from state universities.
As Scott approached his first legislative session in 2011, he unveiled a budget proposal at a tea party rally that included steep spending cuts, including to education. Ultimately, the Republican-led Legislature backed some of those cuts.
Multiple news articles described the cuts to K-12 education at more than $1 billion -- and many articles used that $1.3 billion figure cited by Crist.
A Senate budget subcommittee conference report during the 2011 session shows a cut of about $1.35 billion. But not all of that cut was as a result of reduced state funding -- the largest chunk of the decline was due to the fact that the two years of federal stimulus funds had expired.
In 2009-10 and 2010-11, the state received federal stimulus dollars. (Crist was the governor when the state accepted the stimulus.) When the state got the stimulus, it reduced the state’s contribution by the same amount. When the stimulus funds expired, Scott and the Legislature chose not to fully reinstate the state dollars.
The Florida Education Finance Program, the main source of dollars for K-12 education, is by law a combination of state and local funding. Each school district must contribute property tax dollars called the "required local effort" -- and the state dictates the amount.
Between 2010-11 and 2011-12, the state cut its own contribution to education funding by about $200 million, but it also reduced the local contribution by $572 million. Add in the lost federal stimulus money of $870 million, and we get $1.6 billion in funding reductions.
Finally, there were other things happening that reduced funding for schools, said Ruth Melton, legislative director for the Florida School Boards Association.
During this same time period most school districts lost the authority to levy local discretionary millage (a loss of about $200 million) and had to serve an additional 25,000 students (an additional cost of about $155 million).
On the plus side of the ledger, the state did get more federal aid apart from the stimulus, of about $555 million through a program known as Education Jobs Fund Program.
"In short, I can make a very strong case that the cut between 2010-11 and 2011-12 was more than $2 billion, but I can also find my way to agreeing that the cut was about $1.4 billion," Melton said. "Whatever the case, it seems that the bottom line is that the state could have increased state and local funding levels to cover, at a minimum, the loss of the (stimulus) funds, but chose not to do so."
The education cuts aren’t on Scott’s plate alone, but he was one of the main driver’s behind them. Scott proposed even steeper cuts to education, and in the end he signed off on the budget crafted by the Legislature.
By December 2011, Scott did a major about-face and called for a $1 billion boost to education, though that did not fully cover the previous cut.
"I will not sign a budget that does not significantly increase state funding for education," Scott said at a news conference in the Capitol, the Tampa Bay Times reported. "We've got to really focus on education."
With an eye toward his 2014 re-election campaign, Scott has touted education funding increases. The Department of Education’s powerpoint shows funding hit a recent low of $16.6 billion in 2010-11. But then, over the next two years, it rose to $18.3 billion in 2013-14. But that’s still lower than the pre-recession level -- in 2007-08 the total was $18.7 billion.
One of Scott’s victories in the most recent session was persuading the Legislature to agree to his plan for $480 million in teacher raises.
Scott’s spokesman also cited a 2013 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that said Florida had the second-largest per pupil increase in education spending for the 2013-14 budget year, only behind Oregon.
But despite that increase, the report also showed that Florida was among the majority of the states where funding per student remained lower than 2008.
Crist specified cuts to the state’s universities, not state colleges and community colleges, so we will focus this part of our fact-check on state funding for universities.
State appropriations for universities dropped by $303.7 million between 2011 and 2012, according to the Florida Board of Governors. Lawmakers assumed that universities would dip into reserves and increase tuition up to 15 percent to cover the shortfall.
In 2013, lawmakers approved restoring the $300 million, and schools received additional money for particular projects. That means the total state appropriations (general revenue plus education enhancements) grew by about $519 million between 2012-13 and 2013-14.
"For the first time in seven years, our universities did not see their budgets cut," wrote Frank Brogan, chancellor of the State University System, in an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times. "This is a welcome change that we hope signals the state's long-term re-investment in higher education, particularly following years in which students have shouldered more and more of the costs."
Why would the Legislature slash $300 million only to restore it -- and then some -- the next year?
The Legislature looked at universities’ reserves and found they had more than $1 billion, well above the legal requirement of about $250 million, said Tim Jones, chief financial officer for the Board of Governors.
So the Legislature essentially told universities that the state was going to cut $300 million to balance the budget, and universities could use reserves to cover the loss.
The plan was that it would be a one-year cut and they’d get their money back the following year if the state budget outlook was brighter.
"Universities know that every year kind of stands alone," Jones said. "If the (state’s) budget had been bad, they could have said, ‘Sorry, we can’t restore it this year."
Crist said that Gov. Rick Scott "cut education by $1.3 billion" in his first year and then "in his second year he decreases funding by $300 million to our state universities."
There are various ways to add up the total cuts in K-12. Crist uses the $1.3 billion figure that includes the cut in state and state-required local dollars, but the largest chunk was due to the expiration of the stimulus funds. The state also cut $300 million from universities during Scott’s second legislative session.
We should note that much of K-12 education funding was restored, though it’s still below pre-recession levels. And the Legislature restored the cut to universities the next year.
The bottom line, though, is that Crist chose his words carefully, and those cuts did happen during the years he mentioned. We rate his statement Mostly True.