Northwest Florida priorities were big winners in the state’s budget approved Friday by the Florida Legislature. Often the stepchild to a state government that tends to look east and south, the Panhandle fared especially well during the final year of Niceville Republican Don Gaetz’s presidency of the Senate.
Gaetz delivered substantial appropriations in transportation, economic development, education, arts, health care and environmental initiatives though he was quick to give credit to other area legislators who supported the initiatives.
“Northwest Florida has a small but cooperative and close-knit delegation,” Gaetz said. “I am privileged to work with Representatives Doug Broxson, Marti Coley, Matt Gaetz, Mike Hill, Clay Ingram, Jimmy Patronis and Senator Greg Evers. Each of them leaned in whenever they could to support our region’s priorities. We are a team.”
The Senate President emphasized that Florida’s Constitution allows Governor Rick Scott to veto individual appropriations. So while the Legislature has passed the state’s budget, the Governor can still pick and choose line items to disapprove. The Governor has fifteen days to exercise his veto from the time the two presiding officers submit the budget, which is expected to be within the next few days.
Gaetz said that while helping Northwest Florida communities get back their fair share from the state budget is a source of satisfaction, he is particularly proud of leaving the State with a $3 billion reserve fund, paying down the state’s longterm debt and delivering the largest broad-based tax cut in more than a decade.
“Unlike other large states and certainly unlike the federal government, during the past three years Florida has cut taxes and fees 23 times, lived prudently within our means, reduced debt instead of piling on deficits and met the critical needs of our state,” Gaetz said.
Education Funded at Historic Levels
K-12 school districts in the eight-county region netted a total of $988.4 million, an increase of $34 million over last year. School funding is a partnership of state and local sources. Next year, local schools will have more funds than ever before in Florida history.
For the first time in four years, public school districts will receive construction and major maintenance dollars from the state.
Northwest Florida districts will also share in a statewide $40 million technology fund and $30 million to support CAPE academies for career-technical education in middle and high schools.
In addition, Okaloosa County’s STEMM Middle School Academy and Northwest Florida Ballet Academie will each receive $250,000 in recurring funding. The E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center in Walton County was appropriated $100,000 for teacher training in natural sciences.
Area schools will also share in $1.5 million in start-up and equipment funds for national industry certification programs in manufacturing. In Bay County, $250,000 is provided for training for students seeking certifications in marine construction/shipbuilding.
Kate Smith Elementary School in Chipley will be rebuilt with $9.2 million in state funds. The Holmes County School District is in line for $6.3 million for the first phase construction of a new multi-grade county school.
Higher education institutions came in for more state dollars, as well. The University of West Florida will share in $200 million appropriated state-wide to recognize and reward university programs that result in students graduating on time and securing jobs in their major fields of study. It marks the first time in state history that universities will be funded based on performance.
UWF also benefits from several institution-specific outlays including $2 million for a school of mechanical engineering, $1 million to start a program to train physician assistants, $4 million for on-line learning, $5 million for the Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development and $100,000 for aerospace education.
Chipola College netted $2.7 million for underground utilities improvements. Gulf Coast State College is slated to get $5 million for construction of a science, technology, engineering and math building.
$600,000 recurring was appropriated to Florida State University to fund the Charles Hilton Distinguished Professorship in Free Enterprise Studies. The endowed chair honors the lifetime achievements and free enterprise advocacy of business pioneer Charles Hilton of Panama City Beach.
Water, Environmental Projects Well Funded
A total of $10.7 million in local water and sewer system improvements will come to a dozen Northwest Florida cities and counties under the 2014-2015 budget. The individual projects range from $26,000 for reclaimed water flowmeters for the City of Niceville to $1.6 million to construct new water wells and water mains to serve Mexico Beach to $2 million to connect Freeport and DeFuniak Springs water systems and add 50 thousand feet of water mains in Freeport. $4.4 million is slated for building a wastewater treatment facility at Mossy Head Industrial Park.
Preservation of the coastal dune lakes in south Walton County came in for $623,000. The Legislature also appropriated $30 million for springs protection and restoration, including funds for springs in our area.
Beach renourishment projects in Pensacola and Destin claimed $12.3 million in state funds, including $3.8 million to dredge the East Pass/Destin Harbor and $8.5 million to support Pensacola Beach nourishment efforts.
Healthcare and Children’s Issues Get Priority
Hospitals that provide significant amounts of care to uninsured persons living in poverty will receive additional supplemental payments through the Low Income Pool (LIP). Eight hospitals in Northwest Florida received total payments of $26.3 million through the LIP and Disproportionate Share programs as well as automatic rate enhancements.
Fort Walton Beach Medical Center will obtain $1 million for a crisis stabilization unit, Bay Care in Panama City $300 thousand for behavioral health services for veterans and children, Jackson County Hospital in Marianna $11.4 million for facility improvements, the Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze $500 thousand to support rehabilitation of wounded special operations soldiers, Gateway ARC $2 million to provide residential support for job placement for persons with disabilities, $1.5 million for mental health and substance abuse care for children in Bay and Walton counties, $3 million to fund primary care physician residency programs in rural communities, $350 thousand for start-up funds and construction of a Child Advocacy Center in Walton County and $100 monthly per resident in personal needs allowances for Medicaid residents of every nursing home in the area.
The Guardian ad Litem Program will now be able to provide an advocate for every child in the state court system. Funding is now going to employ hundreds more child protective investigators, social workers and law enforcement officers to investigate child abuse and neglect cases and provide a safer, more transparent, more well-supervised foster care system.
A Good Year for Cultural Projects
Cultural projects benefited from more funding than at any other time in recent history.
$3.4 million was appropriated for twenty-five music, museum, and performance organizations, historic preservation projects, and libraries in Northwest Florida. Every project proposed by the Florida Fine Arts Council state-wide was funded for the first time.
Grants ranged from $400,000 to restore the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum to $60,300 for the Bay Arts Alliance in Panama City to $50,000 for restoration of a historic bank building in Marianna to $80,000 for the Northwest Florida Ballet in Fort Walton Beach.
Civic Improvements Funded
The Washington County Courthouse, literally uninhabitable due to structural deterioration, will be replaced with $9.2 million. Building Homes for Heroes, a non-profit organization that builds houses for severely disabled soldiers, gained a $1 million appropriation as did the City of Crestview for rental housing for low income seniors.
The Walton County Fair Association will receive $750 thousand to replace and repair unsafe, crumbling buildings. The Okaloosa Veterans Court is funded at $150 thousand and the Bud and Doris Day Patriots Trail, honoring the memory of America’s most highly decorated veteran since Douglas MacArthur, will get $125,000 in state support.
Five-year Transportation Plan Builds Region
Northwest Florida’s eight counties will see nearly $2 billion dollars in infrastructure projects and improvements over the next five years with $1.94 billion currently in the Florida Department of Transportation’s Work Program, including $527.5 million in the coming year. This funding will ensure that roads are safe and infrastructure needs are met as jobs continue to come to the Panhandle.