TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/News Service of Florida) - Children's issues were in the spotlight during the 2014 legislative session, frequently contentious and ultimately a very mixed bag.
Given the size of the $77.1 billion budget --- the largest in state history --- many advocates said lawmakers could and should have done more for kids.
"I don't understand why, in a year when we have a … surplus (of more than $1 billion), we can't spend more on what we know is foundational for children," said Vance Aloupis, statewide director of the Children's Movement of Florida.
Ultimately, lawmakers set aside new money for child protection and early learning, although not as much as had been sought. They passed a major child-welfare reform bill while rejecting a measure that would have extended low-cost health care to 20,000 children of legal immigrants. They loaded amendments onto an early-learning bill that died on the session's last day.
But Aloupis and others still call the 2014 session a success, if only for the emergence of lawmakers who say they hope to return next year and take another shot at passing kids-related bills that failed.
"Now we have people in the Legislature championing these issues," Aloupis said.
On the last day of the session, lawmakers approved a far-reaching bill designed to revamp Florida's child welfare system, which has been under legislative scrutiny after a series of child deaths and media reports over the past year.
The measure (SB 1666) passed both chambers unanimously. If signed by Gov. Rick Scott, it will create rapid-response teams to conduct immediate investigations of child deaths, establish the Florida Institute for Child Welfare to conduct policy research, and create the position of assistant secretary for child welfare at the Department of Children and Families. It will use tuition waivers and loan-forgiveness programs to help child-protection staffers earn social-work degrees. It will keep siblings together and medically fragile children in their homes and communities as much as possible.
The bill was accompanied by $47 million in new funding for child welfare and also was linked to a sweeping human trafficking bill (HB 7141).
The biggest item in the budget is for child protective investigators, with $18.5 million for 191 positions at DCF and $8 million for the six county sheriffs' offices that conduct investigations. About $10 million will go to privatized community-based care agencies, with $4 million to recruit and retain caseworkers and $6 million for direct services, including prevention.
The Healthy Families Florida prevention program received a net increase of $2 million. Family Intensive Treatment Teams that help at-risk families with both substance abuse and mental health problems received $5 million.
Early learning advocates had mixed emotions as the session ended with the death of a bill they had backed. At the same time, funding was increased for Florida's voluntary pre-kindergarten and school-readiness programs.
In the session's waning hours, House Education Chairwoman Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake, reluctantly pulled the plug on a bill (HB 7069) intended to upgrade the health, safety and teaching standards of the early learning programs.
"I killed it," O'Toole said. "I'd classify it as a hostage bill in the Senate."
The bill would have licensed private providers in the school-readiness program and required all providers to notify parents of health and safety violations, including posting prominently on their premises citations that result in disciplinary action. Providers with the worst violations --- actions that could hurt or even kill a child, such as leaving one in a hot school bus for hours --- could have lost their licenses.
But the bill died when it came back to the House from the Senate with half a dozen amendments, including some that O'Toole said weren't germane.
"As far as I knew, there was going to be some effort to try to reach an accord, but it just didn't happen," said Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. "It's something that's going to have to be addressed, perhaps, next session."
O'Toole said the bill is "absolutely desperately needed in Florida," and depending on how the House is reorganized in November, she hopes to sponsor it again or help someone else do so.
The budget highlights included an $8.8 million increase for the voluntary pre-kindergarten program, or $54 per student. For the school-readiness program, which provides subsidized child care to the children of low-income working Floridians, the budget set aside $10.5 million for a quality pilot program and $3 million for additional slots.
"For the first time in our history, we established performance-based funding for early learning that mirrors our expectations for K-12 and higher education," said House Education Appropriations Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami.
The voluntary pre-kindergarten and school readiness programs had not had significant funding increases in a decade. But Aloupis pointed out that the $54-per-student increase for voluntary pre-kindergarten didn't bring the state back to where it had been in 2005-2006.
Galvano said the early learning programs got a 2.3 percent increase, whereas the total education budget got a 2.6 percent increase.
"So it's in line with the level we were making increases," Galvano said. "I believe there is a greater understanding now of the impacts of early learning, and we're seeing evidence of that in our budget."
The most painful loss for children's advocates was the death of a proposal (HB 7 and SB 282) that would have eliminated a five-year waiting period for lawfully residing immigrants to be eligible for KidCare, a subsidized insurance program that serves children from low- and moderate-income families.
"It was a huge, unnecessary disappointment," said Karen Woodall, executive director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy and a longtime KidCare advocate.
She estimated that roughly 20,000 children would have gotten coverage had the bill passed.
The proposal by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, got further this year than ever before, passing a committee in each chamber --- including its first in the House.
Last year's version, which Garcia and Diaz also sponsored, didn't get a Senate hearing after the Agency for Health Care Administration estimated its cost at $500 million, which would have included all immigrant children in Florida.
This year, AHCA estimates of the bill's cost began at $27.5 million and came down to under $19 million.
"I think more than anything, there was just too much uncertainty as to what the real numbers were," Diaz said. "It was a waiting game, and we just ran out of time."
But Diaz also said he hopes to sponsor the bill again next year if he is re-elected.
"It really is a no-brainer," he said. "A lot of people get the issue. But we only meet for 60 days, and we were trying to conquer so many ambitious goals that unfortunately, this got left by the wayside."
This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.
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