This is a three-part radio series produced in partnership with The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
Florida has gone through some big changes in the past decade and it's been affecting how well the state functions. After years of job cuts in the state’s public sector, Florida’s state government is now operating with a lot fewer people. Even as the economy rebounds, state government isn’t growing with it. In turn, state agencies have been under fire for not carrying out important functions effectively, which includes important work like helping vulnerable populations and protecting our natural resources.
Since 2000, the state’s budget has grown by $25 million, but Florida has almost 10,000 fewer established positions in the State’s Personnel System, State University System, State Legislature, Courts System and Justice Administration combined.
This has largely been the result of a predominately Republican Legislature and three Republican governors running on platforms promising smaller government since the late 1990s.
As a result, the state’s workforce has shrunk, dramatically. The state’s agencies, which among other things are tasked with protecting vulnerable children, monitoring waterways and providing benefits to Floridians who have fallen on hard times, are struggling to get important work done.
Smaller By Design
Some of the most drastic public sector job cuts in the shortest amount of time were implemented during Gov. Rick Scott’s time in office.
Since 2011, Scott’s administration has had a laser focus on growing the state’s private sector, but the state’s public sector—meaning government jobs—has taken a big hit.
Scott’s fight to cut down government spending was a major platform for his first gubernatorial campaign.
On the campaign trail, Scott promised to reduce the state workforce by 5 percent. Politifact, a government watchdog project carried out by reporters at The Tampa Bay Times, has been tracking whether Scott has kept his campaign promises. According to folks at Politifact, this is a ‘promise kept.’
In fact, he almost doubled his promise. As of this year, Scott has reduced the state workforce by 9.6 percent, according to Politifact.
This isn’t something Scott is hiding, though. In fact, it’s something Scott has routinely touted. During a speech at a conservative political conference in Orlando in his first year in office Scott boasted that the state’s unemployment numbers were shrinking faster than the national average.
“We’ve generated 87,200 private sector jobs,” he said.
But, right after Scott mentioned all these job gains in the state, he bragged about some hefty job cuts.
“And we have 15,000 less government jobs in the state of Florida,” Scott said. “Government doesn’t create jobs.”
Not everyone thinks chopping away at state employee positions is a positive change, though.
“I worked in the state government for 30 years myself. And looking at over the years the reduction in staff in the state system has been dramatic,” explained Tallahassee AFSCME President Jeannette Wynn.
Wynn said privatization and outsourcing of state functions has had real effects on a slew of state agencies.
“What happens when they do that they leave less employees to do the work that is left,” she said. “That means people are doing two or three people’s jobs. Not necessarily a one-person job anymore. Maybe where you had 10 people to do a job, now you have three people to do those duties. And it has not been a very positive outcome for the state nor has it been a positive outcome for the workers.”
However, not everyone sees it that way.
Dominic Calabro, the president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch, said outsourcing and privatizing has made the state really efficient.
Calabro’s group is a well-known watchdog making sure the state is properly spending taxpayer money. Calabro also explained that, in Florida, the state government doesn’t have as much to do compared to other states.
“First and foremost, Florida has a lot of its functions to its taxpayer and citizenry directed through county budgets, school districts and municipalities and special local taxing districts. So, we have one of the highest proportions of state of local funding that is really gleaned through the local government in FL.
Nick Johnson, with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in D.C., said many states have taken to transferring state responsibilities to local governments, even as local budgets also experienced a squeeze in the past several years.
He said both local and state governments nationwide have been making cuts since the recession, which means a lot of important work is slipping through the cracks.
“Over the past six years, state and local governments combined have cut about 700,000 jobs,” he said.
Johnson said no government system is picking up slack for the other at this point, since the economic hardships of the past several years have affected everyone.
“Both the states and the localities have responded by cutting budgets and that means cutting jobs,” he said.
More Than A Decade In The Making
It’s also important to note that Florida’s has had a pretty long with history with state employee cuts. The state’s job cuts aren’t strictly a result of the recession or Scott’s time in office.
In the eight years Republican Governor Jeb Bush was in office, Florida let go about five thousand state workers. Bush was a small government advocate that made slimming down the state system a major priority, even though the state was not in a dire economic situation at the time.
Bush’s successor Republican Governor Charlie Crist added back about six thousand state jobs during his the beginning of time in office, but he and state lawmakers shed about just as many positions during the recession.
Eventually, steeper cuts followed during the Scott administration.
Throughout all this, Democratic state Senator Eleanor Sobel has been in the Florida Legislature. She has argued a push to make the state more lean and efficient has actually made it less effective.
Sobel said the state should be focusing on making its agencies better—not smaller.
“Downsizing is a simple way of trying to solve a problem and I don’t believe that’s the solution,” she said.
Wynn also pointed out there are just not a lot of people fighting for these jobs in Tallahassee.
A union chapter like Wynn’s is pretty much the only group that is in the position to make the case for why the state should not eliminate, outsource or privatize state employee positions.
But, AFSCME is a union in a “right to work” state, so Wynn said it doesn’t have the money or lobbying power to make a difference.
“In Tallahassee you have to pay to play,” Wynn explained. “If you don’t have the money to pay, you don’t get the services. And that’s a fact of life in Florida.”
As a result, even though the state has 4 million more people living in it since 1998, the state’s workforce has almost 10,000 fewer established positions than it did at that time.
According to a workforce report created by the state, while the nationwide average number of state workers per 10,000 in population was 211 in 2012, Florida had just 111 that year. That’s almost half the national average.
In the past few years, Florida’s government has seen the lowest staffing levels in almost two decades.
Child Protective Services
A state agency that has been under perhaps the most scrutiny for failing to do it’s job effectively during this time is Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF), specifically it’s department in charge of monitoring and protecting vulnerable children.
Miami Herald reporters Audra Burch and Carol Marbin Miller spent months sifting through almost 500 child death reports filed DCF. This massive public records project, entitled “Innocents Lost,” delved into hundreds of child deaths in the state. According to the Herald, the key finding of the investigation was that “after Florida cut down on protections for children in troubled homes, deaths soared [and] the children died in ways cruel, outlandish, predictable and preventable.
For the most part, Burch and Miller discovered most of the children who died were already on the state’s radar.
“It’s heartbreaking and it’s also frustrating because you feel like this didn’t have to happen-- that so many of these deaths were preventable,” Burch said.
In fact, Miller and Burch cited multiple cases where children landed in the hospital after apparent beatings and were later returned to their parents. Almost all the stories continued clear signs that children were in danger, yet they were kept at home with their troubled parents.
Miller said all this was the product of the state cutting resources. She said one way officials cut costs was by adopting a policy that kept families together despite signs of trouble.
“There was this policy that children were better off left with their parents even when they were--and they often were-- in grave danger,” Miller explained. “And the state wasn’t devoting the resources necessary to protect those kids who were being left with drug addicted and mentally-ill parents.”
The result: 477 children died preventable deaths from 2008 to November 2013, according to the massive DCF public records request from the Herald.
One of the cutbacks was manpower, according to staff numbers from DCF, in the span of 10 years the agency shed 12 thousand jobs. From 2003 to 2013 DCF’s staff became about 48 percent smaller.
These two developments—an uptick in preventable deaths and a cut in staff-- are linked in a pretty big way.
Miller said she found during her reporting that some of the most alarming job cuts came from DCF’s quality assurance team. She says over five years, the agency cut these watchdog position by about two-thirds.
“Why do we care about quality assurance? Those are the people that you hire to make sure that you don’t make the same mistakes over and over again,” she explained. “Now, if you go back and you read 500 death reviews like we did, you will find that one of the things that has gone on here is that we have made the same mistakes over and over and over again.”
A DCF spokesperson said the steep job cuts are mostly reflective of a move towards community-based care.
From 2000 to 2005 the state outsourced services for children who had been abused, neglected and/or abandoned to local, non-profit agencies. The goal was to make child services in the state more effective and accountable, as well as save the state some money.
However, state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, that’s not how things shook out.
“It is not true that this department has been running more effectively or efficiently or transparently,” she said.
Sobel is also the chair of a committee that oversees DCF. This year, her committee had a lot of work to do. Besides overhauling policies, DCF had to start hiring back some people.
Following The Miami Herald’s reporting this year lawmakers passed a bill that funded 270 additional child protective investigators. Sobel said this is a good start, but she’s not sure it’s enough. Sobel also noted her committee—as well as other state officials—will be closely monitoring the department to see if there needs to be any further changes.
Miller, and investigative reporter that has been covering problems at DCF for years, agreed it’s a good thing the state is working to reduce caseloads for child welfare workers. Before this year, some investigators had up to 20 cases.
But, Miller also argued lawmakers did not really tackle the root of the problem during this year’s legislative session. She said the state should have also set aside more money for foster care, drug treatment and abuse counseling.
Miller said limited resources –including manpower- is a problem currently plaguing a lot of Florida’s social services.
“This is not just about DCF,” she said. “This is about every other agency in state government that performs social services or subsidized health care. And the dirty little secret about Florida politics is that we ration care for our most vulnerable.”
Miller pointed out the Florida Legislature does not have an estimating conference for most social services. This means lawmakers don’t know what the actual level of need for care is. So, they don’t budget for it.
DCF officials said in a statement that due to reform efforts staff cuts are not affecting the department anymore. A spokesperson also pointed out the agency is doing oversight differently via a method called “Rapid Safety Feedback.”
Although, since legislation was passed, the Herald has reported on several other child deaths involving cases DCF was already aware of.
Most recently, DCF has been under fire for a massive killing in Bell, Florida. This past September, Donald Spirit fatally shot his six grandchildren—ranging from 2 months old to 11 years old—and his daughter, before turning the gun on himself.
Burch and Miller reported there were countless signs something like this could happen—and DCF knew about it.
According to the Herald, Florida’s abuse hotlines was getting calls about the Spirit family starting in 2008. There were also 18 investigations, which the Herald reported “included virtually every type of abuse or neglect in the agency’s handbook: beatings, burnings, medical neglect, poor supervision, drug abuse, abandonment and domestic battery among them.” Still, on Sept. 18, the family was slaughtered.
Following months of water quality issues on the east and west coasts of the state, officials held a public meeting in Southwest Florida earlier this year. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials asked local stakeholders which bodies of waters they should be monitoring. For many in the room this was a strange question, but it was also emblematic of how the department has been operating as of late.
Most of the crowd—which was a mix of activists, experts and business-owners—said the state should be checking all of them. Many claimed the state has a duty to make sure all the state’s resources are healthy.
Jennifer Hecker, with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, was among those who pointed out the state’s environmental agency was not doing its entire job.
“I think that DEP has an obligation to monitor every water to make sure that’s safe for its designated use for the public,” Hecker told DEP officials. “That is your agency’s role and you are not fulfilling and we as the public need to stand up get the department the resources it needs so it can fulfill its obligation to us,” she said.
Right after Hecker, a local fisherman asked one of the DEP officials to explain whether budget cuts were part of the reason the state couldn’t monitor the whole state. Julie Espy—who works at DEP –answered.
“Yes, we have had budget cuts, we have had position cuts. We’ve had cuts,” she said.
When asked, she confirmed that those cuts had begun affecting her agency’s monitoring functions.
A lot of this has to do with how overworked DEP staff is.
According to state reports, since 1999, DEP has almost 500 fewer employees, even though development has increased throughout Florida. And this isn’t news to people who have been keeping an eye on DEP, such as Jerry Phillips, who works for Florida’s chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
“With that type of set-up the agency cannot be a regulatory agency—a respectable regulatory agency,” he said.
Among other things, Phillips has been keeping track of how much enforcement action against polluters is being carried out by the state. According to Phillips’ research, enforcement dropped by more than 83 percent from 2008 to 2013.
“It really is a precipitous drop,” he said. “What we are talking about is 210 cases out of 75,000. Now, obviously not all 75,000 are out of compliance. But, I but respectfully suggest more than 210 are out of compliance.”
DEP officials have said in statements that the reduced caseload through the years is due to what they say are higher compliance rates.
According to a DEP spokesperson, “compliance rates across the department’s regulatory programs are at an all-time high of 96-percent.” The Department said that’s because they’ve increased outreach efforts to prevent environmental harm before it occurs.
Environmentalists like Phillips, however, are skeptical.
Help For Jobless Floridians
In another effort to cut costs, the state changed how Floridians can file for benefits if they lose their jobs through no fault of their own. However, the state’s new $63 million system was riddled with errors and the agency didn’t have enough people on staff to help.
In 2011, Florida’s unemployment benefits system went through an overhaul. Per a new law, the state mandated all Floridians seeking benefits apply online. It was an attempt to modernize and streamline the state’s system, but there were a lot of snags.
“They pretty much shut down the phone call centers as a means for applying for benefits overnight,” said George Wentworth, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project (NELP).
NELP, as well as state advocates, have been calling for federal investigations of the problems with the state’s unemployment system. Wentworth said there wasn’t a good plan in place to make sure the switch to a modernized system went smoothly. To make things worse, the new online system—called CONNECT—was riddled with errors.
As soon as it launched, Floridians found it almost impossible to apply for help.
“What happened pretty much immediately after the launch of the CONNECT system was that really tens of thousands of workers stopped getting their weekly benefits,” Wentworth said.
Wentworth said many applicants went six, eight and even ten weeks without their unemployment checks. Most of the problems had to do with the fact that CONNECT identified a lot of problems in applications that required an actual person to step in and make a decision.
But, the state simply didn’t have enough staff to do that. That’s why Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity had to hire about 250 staffers in three months to do that work. However, the hiring surge took place long after problems with the website had already hurt many Floridians.
It's hard to tell how many positions have been cut over the years at the state's unemployment agency. In the late 90s until 2002, the state’s “Labor and Employment" department handled those benefits. Then that work was handed over to the “Agency for Workforce Innovation.” During Scott’s time in office, that became the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO).
DEO officials did not return requests for interviews, updates or clarifications on time for the publishing of this series.
Graphics by: Topher Forhecz.
Disclaimer: WGCU is licensed with Florida Gulf Coast University, a state university. Therefore, the author, Ashley Lopez, is currently an employee in the state university system.