Fla. debates: Money for prisons or money for schools?

Currently, state spends more money on corrections than universities

By John Kennedy
The Ledger

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Once Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger were political look-alikes.

But Crist and some fellow Republicans in the Legislature are distancing themselves from the latest proposal emerging from California's chief executive.

In his final State of the State speech last week, Schwarzenegger proposed a constitutional amendment that would reduce state funding for prisons - while boosting the portion of the state budget going to higher education.

Schwarzenegger said financially-strapped California's priorities have gone "out of whack" in recent years.

Like California, Florida also is spending a larger portion of its general revenue on corrections than universities - 11 percent compared with just under 9 percent. And with prison population forecast as steadily climbing, it has become difficult for Crist, lawmakers and the state's business community to implement spending that matches rhetoric claiming higher education is key to transforming Florida's economy.

"The governor is going to make a case for putting a lot of money into education priorities," said Sterling Ivey, a Crist spokesman, looking ahead to the outgoing governor's final State of the State speech in March. "But I don't think you'll see him saying we should spend more money on education than prisons."

But at least one statewide candidate, attorney general contender Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democratic state senator, said the state should consider such action.

"I've spent a good part of my life putting people in jail," said Gelber, a former federal prosecutor. "But you should spend more money on education to keep people from making wrong decisions that lead to them going to prison."

Florida universities are absorbing a $150 million budget reduction for 2009-10, the third straight year of cuts caused by the state's punishing economy. Crist signed legislation that allows state universities to increase tuition as much as 15 percent annually until the state's current $3,800 yearly tuition reaches the national average, now about $6,585.

While Florida's crime rate fell by 8 percent over the first six months of 2009, state analysts also reported that the state's prison population is expected to grow by 1,288 inmates next year - to 104,698 prisoners, among the highest in the nation.

Tougher and longer sentencing laws, implemented in the late 1990s, are cited as prompting much of the prison population growth, officials said. Crist has historically supported such sentencing, Ivey noted, and is unlikely to shift positions even as the state scrambles for budget dollars.

But Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chairman of the Senate's criminal justice budget committee, said it's time for Florida to revisit minimum mandatory sentencing requirements, with an eye toward reducing some that may prove ineffective.

"We have to reduce the cost of incarceration and prevent or divert criminal activity so we can begin to reduce the expenditures," Sen. Crist said. "But I think any cost savings we can derive are going to have to go into our court system, not higher education."

Copyright 2010 Lakeland Ledger Publishing Corporation

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