Cary McMullen: Kudos to Putnam for trying to get money to fix schools

I’m beginning to think that Adam Putnam is just about the only grown-up in Tallahassee. Which is ironic because Putnam, Florida’s commissioner of agriculture, isn’t even 40 yet.

But he’s served in the Florida and U.S. Houses of Representatives and as agriculture commissioner has demonstrated that — future ambitions aside — he’s at least looking for pragmatic solutions to chronic problems bedeviling Florida.

In the near-total absence of leadership on the issue by Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature, Putnam is trying to address the problem of capital funding for public education facilities.

Since the 1960s, the state has helped school districts and public colleges with money for construction and repair of buildings and infrastructure through the Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) trust fund. The source of the fund was a portion of taxes on utilities and telephone land lines. The fund hit its peak about six years ago and has been declining ever since. One reason: the decline in the number of land lines.

Between 2011 and 2013, the state dispensed no PECO funds — zero. The recession was partly to blame, but buildings do not care about recessions. Paint goes right on peeling, roofs continue to spring leaks, and older buildings go right on deteriorating. The school districts do have some money from property taxes they can allocate for capital purposes, but it has not been enough to keep up.

In his proposed 2014-2015 budget, Scott allocated a piddling $80 million for capital purposes. To put that in perspective, replacing school roofs in Broward County alone would cost about $40 million. In Polk County, the district estimates that its capital needs over the next five years total $275 million.

To add insult to injury, Scott would give $90 million in capital funds to charter schools — more than for traditional public schools. Why? Because, it’s said, the poor charter schools usually don’t receive capital funds the school districts generate through property taxes.

What’s lacking from Scott, Senate Majority Leader Don Gaetz and Speaker of the House Will Weatherford is any vision about, or even any interest in, how to shore up PECO and ensure a more consistent source of money.

Enter Putnam. In op-ed pieces appearing around the state this week, Putnam makes the case for diverting a portion of the tax businesses pay for electricity into PECO. He has enlisted two legislative partners — Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola — to file companion bills in the Senate and House that would do just that, adding about $225 million annually to the fund.

To be sure, it’s a clever move by Putnam. The bill would not raise taxes — which would never fly in an election year — only move the revenue around. And this initiative, certainly not his first or last as commissioner, is a stopgap measure at best that nonetheless keeps his name before the public.

But the point is that Putnam identified a critical problem that the governor and our legislative so-called leaders have responded to with a shrug. And he has taken a public stand for a new initiative to address the problem for the near future.

The Republican war on public education as exemplified by Scott, Gaetz and Weatherford represents a level of selfishness that’s appalling. These people almost universally benefitted from public education that their grandparents, parents and total strangers paid for willingly with their taxes. Now that it’s their turn to do the same for the next generation, they whine that the taxes cost too much while shelling out thousands of bucks in tuition to send their own kids and grandkids to private schools.

At least with this initiative, the Republican Putnam is saying that public education is necessary, valuable and needs to be funded properly. This may not make up for years of neglect, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Cary McMullen is writer and editor who lives in Lakeland, Fla. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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