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Many Spending Issues Unresolved After Fla. Legislature’s Weekend Talks

Florida State Capitol
Michael Rivera
Wikimedia Commons
Florida State Capitol

Florida lawmakers trying to piece together a roughly $100 billion state budget for the coming year spent the weekend trading offers on everything from teacher pay raises to more money to help mothers with newborn children.

Many key spending issues remained up in the air Sunday, including a proposal by Gov. Ron DeSantis to use one-time federal stimulus money to hand out $1,000 bonuses to teachers and principals.

Lawmakers have a little more than a week to reconcile the budget if they hope to wrap up their 60-day legislative session on time April 30. Because of a legally required 72-hour “cooling-off” period, a final state budget --- which would cover spending for the fiscal year that starts July 1 --- must be on the desks of lawmakers by April 27.

One major spending issue that remains unresolved is how lawmakers plan to spend up to $10 billion that the state expects to receive as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, a stimulus plan signed last month by President Joe Biden to address effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The fate of Florida’s share of the money appears to be an issue for talks during the coming days between the chairs of the main budget committees: Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City

In the meantime, conference committees responsible for large parts of the budget held meetings over the weekend.

House and Senate education budget chiefs on Sunday said they are “pretty close” to aligning their spending plans for the prekindergarten through 12th-grade system, but several issues need to be worked out.

The House presented an initial offer that would include matching Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recommendation of increasing funding for teacher pay raises by $50 million, to $550 million. The Senate has proposed keeping funding for teacher pay raises at $500 million, which would continue a plan approved during the 2020 session.

At least at this point, a proposal by DeSantis to give teachers and principals $1,000 bonuses by using federal stimulus dollars isn’t being considered by House and Senate budget negotiators --- but it could resurface in the next few days.

House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, said the House is targeting roughly $464 million to fund proposals (HB 7045 and  SB 48) that would expand school-voucher programs. Initially, the House was looking to keep that money in case districts saw a surge in enrollment because of children returning to school after staying away this year because of the pandemic.

As of early Sunday evening, health-care budget negotiators had met only once over the weekend, with the Senate making an initial offer Saturday. That offer included partial funding of a top priority of House Speaker Chris Sprowls: directing $240 million in state and federal money to allow postpartum women to continue qualifying for Medicaid benefits for one year. Currently, they receive two months of coverage following delivery of babies.

The Senate offered Saturday to extend coverage for six months, proposing to spend nearly $86 million in state and federal dollars on the additional four months of benefits.

“It’s an intense use of (general revenue), but again the speaker made it a priority and we made a valiant and aggressive effort to get there,” Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach who leads the Senate health-care spending panel,  told The News Service of Florida.

The Senate’s Saturday-night offer did not inch the chambers closer together on hospital or nursing home funding. The Senate stood firm in its opposition to reducing nursing home Medicaid payment rates. The House has proposed reducing rates by $80.45 million.

House and Senate budget negotiators, meanwhile, appeared to draw closer on the criminal-justice budget, with the Senate proposing a pay raise for corrections workers if a state prison is shuttered.

Senate leaders have looked at prison closures as a way to address a staffing crisis in the corrections system. 

An original Senate budget proposal called for the elimination of 6,000 prison beds and the demolition of four prisons by the end of the year. The Senate eased off that plan, approving a budget plan this month that would require one 1,500-bed prison to close. 

During a budget conference meeting Saturday, a proposal offered by Senate negotiators included money for the 1,500 prison beds but did not back away from the proposal to shut down a prison.

The Senate again revised the proposal Sunday, offering an incentive of 3 percent pay raises for corrections workers if a prison is closed.

Although the state’s inmate population has declined amid the coronavirus pandemic, Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch has said he opposes the shuttering of any state prisons. The House’s preliminary budget plan would allow the Department of Corrections to consider closing two prisons but would first require the agency to submit a “comprehensive plan” for the closures to legislative leaders and DeSantis by Dec. 31.

Lawmakers are also trying to nail down final amounts for key environmental programs. So far, $100 million has been lined up for the Florida Forever land preservation program, the same as was approved last year, and $50 million has been targeted for the state’s springs, with another $25 million possible in supplemental funding, said Senate Agriculture, Environment and General Government Appropriations Chairman Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula.

“It's not a point of contention. We're trying to balance budgets and trying to figure out how we get everything done,” Albritton said.  “Plus, we have the stimulus money.”

Talks continue about funding for citrus research and marketing, as well as funding for Everglades restoration and water projects. DeSantis has made a priority of Everglades and water projects, requesting $625 million a year.

Albritton expects the Legislature to exceed DeSantis’ request. The Senate initially offered $786 million, while the House proposed $665.8 million.

“I would expect at the end of the day that we'll see a really good environmental budget,” Albritton said.

News Service staff writers Ryan Dailey, Dara Kam and Jim Turner contributed to this report.