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Florida legislative leaders will use reserve funds to pay workers

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is welcomed to a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives by House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, left, and Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, right, to give his State of the State address, Tallahassee, Fla., Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.
Gary McCullough
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is welcomed to a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives by House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, left, and Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, right, to give his State of the State address, Tallahassee, Fla., Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.

House and Senate leaders plan to use “rainy day reserve” money to keep afloat about 200 jobs after Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed more than $56 million from part of the state budget that pays for “legislative support services.”

The vetoes wiped out funding for joint legislative offices used to pay for such things as the Office of Economic & Demographic Research, the Old Capitol Museum, the Office of Program Policy Analysis & Demographic Research, joint legislative committees, the Florida Channel, and lobbyist registration services.

The vetoes also included fine print that would have required the Office of Economic & Demographic research to conduct a study on the effect of doing away with fees imposed by credit card companies on sales taxes collected by retailers.

The Florida Constitution gives the Legislature the power to pass the state’s annual budget, while the governor has line-item veto authority. DeSantis on Wednesday signed a $116.5 billion budget for the fiscal year that will start July 1 and vetoed close to $950 million in spending approved by lawmakers in March.

After the vetoes of the legislative services money, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, and House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, quickly assured employees that they were working to ensure workers were protected.

On Monday, the leaders issued a memo saying they intend to tap into reserve funds as a temporary solution.

“While the final resolution of this matter may require an act of the Legislature at a future date, we have determined that use of the Legislature’s rainy day reserve funding can temporarily bridge the gap,” the leaders wrote. “Florida law provides strong protections to ensure continuity of operations in our three independent, co-equal branches of government.”

The memo said the Legislature “maintains the sole constitutional authority to appropriate taxpayer dollars” and the governor has “broad executive authority as well as a significant emergency fund at his discretion” that can be used “to cover emergency and unforeseen circumstances” without an “immediate act” of the Legislature.

“Likewise, to ensure continuity of operations for the functions of the people’s elected representatives in the House and Senate, Florida law grants the Legislature the authority to accrue and make use of a rainy day fund, comprised of dollars that were appropriated but unspent in prior years. Fortunately, due to prudent financial management of limited taxpayer dollars under prior administrations, the House and Senate have endeavored to operate like the tens of millions of Florida families we are privileged to represent, making a habit of spending less than we have and saving for the future,” the memo said.

The House has an “available balance” of about $105.9 million in “discretionary” funds, and the Senate has about $88.7 million, according to information on the state’s Transparency Florida website. But some of that money is already earmarked for other uses, said Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Passidomo.

“Portions of the reserve funding have been dedicated to ongoing initiatives to improve security and promote public access in the Senate Office Building and areas of the Florida Capitol,” Betta told The News Service of Florida.

In addition to security upgrades and renovations for public access, reserve funds have been used for such expenses as asbestos remediation, Monday’s memo said.

The legislative leaders said they thought the consequences of DeSantis vetoing money for legislative services were “unintended.”

“The situation nonetheless highlights the wisdom of prior legislatures in maintaining ample reserves needed to maintain the continuity of operations of the legislative branch of Florida’s government, including the vital services each joint entity provides to both our legislators, and the more than 20 million Floridians we represent,” Monday’s memo said.

DeSantis’ vetoes of the money sparked speculation about whether the Legislature could address the issue without a rare veto override. The last overrides took place in 2010, when Republicans overrode seven vetoes by then-Gov. Charlie Crist after he bolted from the GOP. Overrides require two-thirds approval from members in both chambers.

While Republicans hold supermajorities in the House and Senate, DeSantis has largely dominated the Legislature. Lawmakers also handed DeSantis a series of policy victories as he prepared to seek the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. DeSantis dropped out of the presidential race in January and has thrown his support behind former President Donald Trump.

A memo from the House and Senate’s top lawyers distributed Monday said the Legislature has the authority to use the reserves “to fund ongoing operations” zeroed out by the governor.

“The Legislative branch is not subject to provisions of Florida law that prohibit state agencies from expending funds on vetoed appropriations. This exemption ensures that the Legislature can fund its operations and upholds the constitutional separation of powers by recognizing the Legislature’s primary role in the appropriations process,” Senate General Counsel Carlos Rey and House General Counsel David Axelman wrote in the memo.

The lawyers’ memo pointed to part of state law that says “neither the governor, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, nor a state agency” can spend money to implement programs “that were authorized by the vetoed appropriation.”

“However, the Legislature ‘and all units and offices of the legislative branch’ are not ‘agencies’ … Therefore, this prohibition against using funds to implement programs authorized by vetoed appropriations does not apply to the legislative branch,” they wrote.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Sunny Isles Beach Democrat who will take over as minority leader after the November elections, said Passidomo will ensure that the roughly 200 employees affected by the vetoes are protected.

“I think Kathleen Passidomo is gonna make sure those people get paid and salaries are paid,” Pizzo said in a phone interview, adding that he thinks “she's gonna try to do it in a very diplomatic, quiet but not clandestine or nefarious way.”

Dara Kam/News Service of Florida
Gina Jordan is the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. Follow Gina: @hearyourthought on Twitter. Click below for Gina's full bio.