The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

The governor’s investments


OUR OPINION: Gov. Rick Scott’s budget proposal makes smart investments in education but fails the healthcare test

With Florida’s economy on the uptick and tax revenues rising, Gov. Rick Scott is asking the Legislature to increase the state’s budget by 6 percent for next fiscal year. And he’s putting more money in for teachers and into environmental programs such as the restoration of the Everglades.

Good investments, all.

The governor has clearly been listening to Floridians who understand the link between a strong education system that pays its teachers their worth and a strong economy. Florida’s natural beauty and its River of Grass, the Everglades, also are key to sustaining the quality of life that residents cherish and visitors come to enjoy.

The $74.2 billion budget proposal includes an across-the-board pay raise of $2,500 for each public school teacher, which is long overdue. Yet some conservative legislators seem to think the raise conflicts with the state’s new merit pay program for teachers. It doesn’t. Florida teachers are paid near the bottom of national rankings. Many excellent educators have been leaving for other states that offer better pay. That’s not a brain drain that Florida’s economy can afford.

The one-time-only raise would make Florida more competitive. Then the merit system would kick in for future years based on the quality of teachers’ work in the classroom, offering ever greater incentives to those who show the greatest results.

Mr. Scott also wants to freeze tuition for incoming freshmen at Florida’s state colleges — if they complete their bachelor’s degree in four years. That’s a smart incentive.

The governor’s detractors state the obvious: He’s preparing for reelection and with his popularity ratings in the tank, Mr. Scott is trying to win votes for 2014 with a nod to education.

So what if he is? What politician hasn’t?

Motives aside, the governor is on the right course.

Unfortunately, he’s still stubbornly in the dark is on healthcare reform and its implications for Florida’s uninsured — and our economy. He has used some funny math to try to make a case that expanding Medicaid coverage for the poor under the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, would be a bad deal for the state. Yet that key part of the new healthcare law, which kicks in next year, would be a bargain for Florida because the federal government would be paying the lion’s share of the bill. And with preventive care, the state would save on the costs of much more expensive emergency care.

Instead, 900,000 Floridians will be left in the lurch, uncovered by Medicaid. That inevitably will lead to more emergency care costs for those who get sick with preventable diseases. Another troublesome proposal: drastically cutting payments to safety-net hospitals like Jackson Health System.

Mental health services are another dire need, especially after the Sandy Hook massacre of schoolchildren in Connecticut brought the issue to the limelight once more. Governors across the country are looking at hiring more mental health experts at schools and in community settings. Not Mr. Scott — even though school shootings in Florida are not an anomaly.

Legislators, particularly the Miami-Dade delegation, should push for more mental health funding.

When he released his budget last week, Gov. Scott noted, “Now we have the wherewithal to make more investments.”

Yes we do, and healthcare should be right up there next to education. The combination will be a plus for Florida’s economy.

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