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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Numbers Game: Lawmakers give UF less

It's no secret that Florida's public universities, including UF, are grappling with massive budget shortfalls.

The state lottery is often touted as a major aid for higher education. The program, which says it boasts a commitment to education, gave about ,1.5 billion to the state Legislature this year. Lawmakers can divide up education funding any way they want.

The contribution from the state lottery only makes up 6.6 percent of the state's ,23.5 billion education budget.

Additionally, the lottery's yearly contribution to the Legislature makes up 31 percent of the program's total revenue.

Because of legislative budget cuts this year, UF got about ,20 million less in lottery contributions than in 2006. This amount excludes the Bright Futures Scholarship Program.

Legislators assert the lottery was never meant to fully fund education, said Rep. Frank Attkisson, a Republican in charge of the House of Representatives council that oversees the lottery.

Lottery officials affirm the lottery is completely geared toward raising educational dollars, and it's up to the Legislature to decide exactly where its revenue goes.

"We probably have one of the most efficient lottery systems in the country," Attkisson said. "But I'm one of the first ones who asks, 'Can we squeeze any more out of it?'"

Down on their luck

Tuition in Florida is about ,2,000 less than the national average of ,5,836. As a result, Florida ranks nearly last in terms of student-teacher ratios, stated documents from Florida's Board of Governors - the State University System's highest governing body.

Tuition is only supposed to pay for about one-fourth of students' education fees at public universities, the board stated. The rest should come from state funding.

At the end of a 10-day special session Oct. 12, the Legislature cut ,400 million from state's public schools, community colleges and universities.

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It trimmed ,22.1 million from UF's budget alone.

UF President Bernie Machen said he thinks the lottery is one revenue source that could be tweaked to bring more money to UF.

"Higher education needs a dedicated source of revenue so we're not subject to the whims of Florida's economy," Machen said.

Jackpot

The lottery was created by a constitutional amendment in 1986 to support public K-12 schools, school construction bonds, state community colleges and universities, and other financial aid. Its budget is about ,4 billion.

More than half the total revenue is used for prizes, advertising and other operating expenses, and the rest is used for education.

"Our mandate is to generate money for education, period," said Jackie Barreiros, Florida lottery spokeswoman. "Honestly, it's the cornerstone of everything."

Barreiros said the lottery continues to search for ways to bring in more educational funds within the restraints of legislative statutes.

The lottery has recently reduced its number of paid employees, introduced several new games and increased the number of lottery-ticket retailers across the state from 13,000 to 13,500.

"But that's where it ends," Barreiros said. "It's kind of a double-edged sword. It's a wonderful thing we do, but we're limited in our role."

Clutching the purse strings

Attkisson, the state representative in charge of the House's lottery council, said it's unlikely the Legislature would make the lottery contribute a higher percentage to education.

He said he still has ideas to maximize its profits.

Florida is one of seven states that do not collect income tax. Revenue from other sources, such as tourism, sales taxes and property taxes, are expected to make up the difference.

In the past few years, property values have risen dramatically, causing property taxes to skyrocket.

Florida residents appealed to the government for financial relief. A promise for that respite came a few months ago from Gov. Charlie Crist, when he asked the Legislature to reduce the taxes.

Since the Legislature's revenue from property taxes is dwindling, it must depend on sales tax for much of its revenue.

Meanwhile, insurance rates in Florida are cripplingly high for many low-income residents, dissuading them from spending extra money and stripping the Legislature of revenue it needs to fund institutions such as state universities.

Until people have enough disposable income to gamble it on lottery tickets, the amount of lotto funding for education probably won't increase dramatically, he said.

Low income, high stakes

While members of low-income groups are more likely to buy lottery tickets, most of Florida's citizens who attend state universities and benefit from the funding belong to higher-income groups, Attkisson said.

"We're robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said. "We take from the poor and give to the rich."

That trend is not likely to change, he added.

Attkisson said the best way to increase educational funding from the lottery would be to encourage low-income individuals to buy more tickets instead of changing the whole system.

"That's what the lottery is all about," he said. "It's a chance for hope. And who wants more hope? Affluent people don't have the need for hope."

Bright Futures doesn't consider the income of its recipients.

The program is completely funded by the lottery.

A gamble

The possibility of privatizing the lottery has been suggested to generate more education revenue by hiring a private company to create even more games and sell more tickets, but the Legislature probably won't shift in that way, Attkisson said.

If it wanted to expand the lottery, the Legislature could do so on its own, he said.

To him, the ethical costs of promoting more lottery participation outweigh monetary benefits.

"We probably have enough of an appetite for gambling," he said.

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