Tia Mitchell: Renner becomes a chairman, eyes on education spending


Rep. Paul Renner is already benefiting from his election to the position that puts him in line to become Florida’s House speaker in five years.

The current speaker, Richard Corcoran, announced last week that Renner is the new chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, a panel that focuses on government finances and taxes. The reshuffling of committee leadership was warranted by the resignation of Rep. José Félix Díaz, who is running in a special election for a Senate seat.

It is rare for a freshman like Renner, R-Palm Coast, to be appointed to lead any committee. The role puts him in Corcoran’s inner circle along with the other two men ahead of Renner in the speakership line, Rep. Jose Oliva and Rep. Chris Sprowls.

Corcoran stayed out of the freshman GOP caucus’s leadership race that Renner won last month, although there were rumors he preferred the guy who ended up in second place, Rep. Jamie Grant. By giving Renner a leadership role, Corcoran is signaling unity and making it clear that Renner is part of the team.

Here are some other thoughts as I scroll down my news feed …

School districts should justify every penny

Two separate actions by state lawmakers could have big impacts on Duval County schools. One of them, a review of the formula used to allocate state spending among 67 districts, isn’t targeted at anyone. But the portion of the formula that Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, and Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, have asked to be studied benefits Duval and other urban districts by shifting money to them under the assumption that costs of living are higher in more-populous counties.

The second request should be even more concerning to Duval County School Board members. Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, has asked the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee to dig into the district’s finances. Fischer, a former school board member, cited reported budget deficits.

“I have major concerns that the $21 million in overspending will hurt our most vulnerable citizens, our children,” Fischer wrote in his request letter.

This gives me déja vu. I was the Florida Times-Union’s education reporter when Superintendent Joseph Wise was forced out. Afterwards, board members and district administrators were left to pick up the pieces after Wise invested in costly new programs and technology upgrades that they didn’t see the same value in.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti resigned to take a job leading Detroit schools in May. Like Wise, he had his own vision for how Duval Schools should run and spent money on his priorities.

There is nothing wrong with that. However, if the district spent more money than it had in the bank, it could affect everything from credit ratings to credibility with state lawmakers and oversight agencies.

Alumni demand matching dollars

For years, the Legislature has declined to budget money for a program that matches certain private donations to state universities. The matching donors program was suspended during the economic downturn, and it never came back.

Now, alumni of the University of Florida and Florida State University have sued the state and seek class-action status. They want to compel the state to pay the matching funds under four different programs that haven’t been funded the past several years.

Of course, UF and FSU stand to gain the most if the courts say the state should have made good on its matching gifts promises. But all state universities have received donations that qualified for matching funds that never came. The News Service of Florida reported that the lawsuits allege that the state owes universities $600 million to match $460 million in private donations.

This will be one case to watch closely, as that is no small sum for the state to grapple with.

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Tia Mitchell: (850) 933-1321



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