Bill is bad for Florida’s children

Published Thursday, April 8, 2010

At no time in recent history have Florida children more desperately needed the help provided by special countywide taxing districts known as children's services councils. Yet state Republican Sen. Joe Negron of Stuart and several of his colleagues picked this moment to push legislation that could put the councils out of business. It's bad timing and bad policy. While the bill stalled in a House committee Thursday, lawmakers should make sure to kill it for good.

Under SB 1216, five of the eight independent children's councils in the state would face referendums this November on whether the councils should be retained or dissolved. Among the councils facing a November vote would be the Children's Board of Hillsborough County and the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board, which was created in 1945 by the Legislature and county voters. The remaining children's councils would have to submit to referendums later, and all would face reauthorization votes every six years thereafter.

Children's councils promote the welfare of children and their families in a nonpartisan, apolitical way. Created by county ordinance or legislative special act and with taxing authority approved by voters, they contract for programs that improve the lives of children. Those programs include subsidized day care so parents can work, early childhood education, child abuse prevention programs and parenting assistance. Last year, children's councils collectively invested $450 million in those efforts.

The councils are directed by appointed governing boards, which usually include some local elected officials. Negron invokes images of the Boston tea party in arguing that the councils commit "taxation without representation" because their boards are appointed, not elected. While it may be an appealing idea to give voters a regular shot at voting the councils up or down, doing so could substantially interfere with their ability to hire, sign contracts and do essential long-term planning.

Negron's bill is heavy-handed and punitive in requiring a referendum in this fall. In this economy, voters unfamiliar with the councils might reflexively reject a ballot item that mentions a special tax, and councils would have little time to educate the public on their missions.

At a time when families are stressed and the social safety net is frayed, the loss of children's council dollars could destroy programs that keep children safe and help them thrive. The Legislature, which in the past has been a partner with local communities in setting up children's councils, should not now be a party to their destruction.

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