Florida Budget Discussion Begins With House, Senate Plans About $2B Apart

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Florida lawmakers dove into debating a state budget Wednesday amid uncertainty over how the ongoing pandemic will affect the next round of revenue projections and the state’s bottom line.

While the state expects a $10 billion lift from federal coronavirus relief funds, how to use that money remains under debate.

What’s not in question, however, is the need for heftier reserves to allow the state to better weather the unexpected – like the COVID-19 outbreak that shuttered much of the economy last year and sent state revenues on a downward spiral. Both chambers propose keeping $5 billion in reserves.

As the Republican-led Legislature got to work on the budget, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced even more spending – $216 million for $1,000 bonuses to public school teachers and principals. The money would be drawn from the state’s share of school emergency relief funds from last year’s federal coronavirus relief bill.

Earlier this month, the Republican governor had proposed similar one-time bonuses for first responders, using $208 million of the state’s share of the latest federal relief package signed into law three weeks ago by President Joe Biden.

DeSantis initially proposed a $96.6 billion budget, which he later augmented with $4.1 billion in additional spending drawn from the relief funds.

The often-tedious budget process will dominate the remaining five weeks of the two-month legislative session, even as lawmakers take up scores of other bills left on their agenda.

Budget proposals are routinely adjusted during negotiations, and many of those changes will be influenced by the state revenue projects that will be released next week by state economists.

Last summer, the economists projected a revenue downturn of $5.4 billion over two years but rosier December data prompted the shortfall to be adjusted downward to $3.3 billion.

Federal relief money has helped the state better weather the financial turmoil.

The House includes some of the federal money in its $97.1 billion proposal, while the Senate’s $95 billion spending plan does not. Both chambers want to set aside $5 billion in reserves.

Behind those hefty numbers are scores of budget line items, big and small, that represent programs that fund lawmakers’ policy priorities. Appropriations committees in the House and Senate waded into the financial minutiae and will get deeper into the weeds in the coming weeks.

In announcing its proposed budget, House leaders highlighted some of its priorities: increasing K-12 school funding by $181 per student, boosting funding for the Healthy Start children’s program by $32 million, reserving $200 million in beach restoration and allocating $3.5 billion for repairing public buildings, including college and university facilities.

The Senate and House budget proposals both reflect no tuition increases for public colleges and universities.

Both chambers will have to reconcile their differences in a host of arenas, including spending on education, health care and the environment. And they will have to do so while considering the governor’s spending priorities.

In the coming weeks, Democrats, who are a minority in both chambers, will scrap for whatever they can to support safety net programs for which they have traditionally advocated.

During the House budget hearing, Democrats again called for expanding Medicaid – a perennial effort that has gotten nowhere – possibly by using federal pandemic funds to free up money to make the health care program more widely available.

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