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2012 February 6 - 12:00 am

Officials Halt Funding for Fla. College Projects

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s schools, community colleges and state universities could be forced to halt, or put off for years, scores of new construction projects, including repairs on roofs and air-conditioners due to a dramatic drop in available state money.

State officials are so worried about the decline that they took the unusual step of stopping payments to some projects, including some that may only be halfway completed. Officials were gathering information on which projects need to cease.

On top of that, Gov. Rick Scott has asked that schools and colleges return as much as $250 million to the state.

Scott made the request because a new forecast shows the state will have zero new construction dollars available for schools and colleges for the next two years. In order to cover projects that were already approved, the governor wants to use money that may be left over from other construction jobs.

“Due to this significant shortfall, it has become necessary for difficult decisions to be made on which projects may be funded and which must be discontinued at this point in time,” Scott wrote in a letter that he sent out to top education officials.

The governor made the request for schools to give him back construction money on the same day that he publicly urged lawmakers to increase spending on day-to-day operations for schools by $1 billion.

Scott said he wants to work with state lawmakers to deal with the construction money shortfall, but it comes at a time when top Republican legislators are at already odds over the state budget.

Legislators are already being confronted with a nearly $2 billion shortfall. A majority of state senators have signed a letter saying they are willing to wait until later in the year before passing a budget. If the economy improves then lawmakers can avoid making deep budget cuts. The state’s fiscal year doesn’t start until July and usually the Legislature does not pass its annual budget until early May.

But House Republicans want to work on the state budget during the regular session that last month instead of waiting. A spokeswoman for House Speaker Dean Cannon said that the House budget will include a “solution” to the school construction money shortfall.

Currently the state primarily uses money from a tax charged on utilities and cable bills to pay for school construction projects, although in the past they have also used money from lottery ticket sales and even the state’s sales tax.

State lawmakers use part of this utility tax to pay for maintenance and repair projects at public schools as well as colleges and universities. But they also pledge part of the money to pay off bonds that have been used to pay for new school buildings.

Scott last year vetoed a long list of school building projects — although not money for a controversial branch campus of the University of South Florida in Lakeland — because he worried about a sharp decline in the tax proceeds used for construction.

In his memo this week, Scott said despite his veto the drop “exceeded most projections” and has left the state unable to borrow any more money.

Scott asked that state education officials give him a list that spells out if there is unused money left over from older construction projects that can be shifted to cover $250 million worth of projects that have been approved but not yet funded.

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