The past two years, Gov. Rick Scott and the majority in the state Legislature have been mostly on the same conservative, pro-business page regarding education, reforming insurance, slashing the budget and repealing government regulations.
But the atmosphere throughout the Capitol on the eve of Scott releasing his 2013 agenda is that he has put lawmakers in a tough spot.
Scott has proposed giving every teacher a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise -- plus accompanying benefits.
The proposal means increasing the budget by about $480 million or slashing that amount from another service covered by the states spending plan.
While teachers who have never been in a hand-holding mode with the governor have expressed trepidations about Scotts announcement, the call also puts lawmakers in a difficult position as they look ahead to the 2014 election cycle.
They can reject the pay hike and face the prospects of being labeled anti-teacher or anti-education by an opponent. They can approve a hike that goes against many of their core supporters, while leaving behind other state workers who havent had a general raise since October 2007.
A third option is to move forward with budgeting for merit-based increases for all workers, which would be expected to surpass the $480 million mark.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, repeated assertions that Scott will need to be specific where the teacher funding should come from.
"The best teacher in Florida and the worst teacher in Florida should not be treated the same when it comes to this raise," Gaetz said. "A $2,500 per teacher across-the-board raise would seem to be counter-intuitive to what the governor has supported in the past."
The general belief from Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is that any money for teacher raises should be based upon merit.
We applaud the governors efforts to increase money in education funding, Weatherford told Tampa Bay Times. That being said, the method of the increase is just as important. We are supportive of merit pay.
Weatherford holds to the 2011 law, Senate Bill 736, which eliminated teach tenure and based teachers pay on test results.
Gaetz agreed the test scoring criteria needs some adjustment.
If you have a C school, 90 percent of teachers in a C school cant be highly efficient, that doesnt seem to make sense, Gaetz said. If you have an A school, it seems that vastly most of your teachers must be doing a pretty good job. I think the model that we have now stands to be simplified.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, has also said that despite talk of the state entering the 2013 legislative session with a potential surplus for the first time since 2007, Florida faces a number of economic hurdles.
And drawing out $480 million for additional teacher pay most likely will mean that money has to come from another part of the state budget.
The big picture is, were not starting the year having to automatically make drastic reductions, Negron said.
If you look at the cost to keep our pension plan in the high 80 (percent funded) where we want it to make sure we have adequate reserves, and there are increased costs in our state health-care plan based on the Affordable Care Act, its going to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. I think we have to be cautious before we commit to new expenditures.
Reach Jim Turner at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (772) 215-9889.