Budget Chiefs Finalize State Spending Plan
House and Senate budget chiefs agreed Tuesday to a roughly $90 billion budget deal, but lawmakers will not end the 2019 legislative session on time.
The budget needed to be distributed Tuesday to meet the scheduled Friday end of the session. That is because of a mandatory 72-hour "cooling off" period before lawmakers can vote on the budget. But the budget was not distributed by Tuesday night.
"We're probably going to spill into Saturday on the budget, hopefully about mid-day, maybe early afternoon," House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said early Wednesday after a marathon House floor session. "The final details are always very difficult, and the staff works diligently, but there's just so many details to cover."
The budget package exceeds Gov. Ron DeSantis’ call for environmental spending, steers public-education construction maintenance funding to charter schools, and boosts wages for individuals who take care of developmentally disabled adults.
House Appropriations Chairman Travis Cummings, a Fleming Island Republican, and his Senate counterpart, Rob Bradley, spent days hammering out differences between the two chambers’ spending plans. The budget writers also took into consideration suggestions from DeSantis, Cummings told reporters after he and Bradley met Tuesday evening.
“There was a good balance that took place that not only offered constraint but met some of the critical needs of the state of Florida,” Cummings said.
When asked the total amount of the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1, Cummings said it’s been “a fast and furious couple of days.”
"I can’t even tell you kind of where we ended up," he said.
Money for school construction has been one of the most contentious areas of the budget.
As part of a final budget deal, the House and Senate agreed to give charter schools $158.2 million to maintain, repair and remodel their buildings while deciding to give traditional public schools, state universities and colleges no money for that purpose.
Cummings and Bradley defended that decision, pointing to a $248 per-pupil increase for K-12 students and other school funding.
“This was a big year for traditional public schools,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said. “I think that our traditional public schools and those parents and students who choose to make different choices in their educational opportunities are all winners in this year’s budget.”
The final budget deal sets aside $280.4 million for public education capital outlay, or PECO, projects, including the $158 million lawmakers earmarked for charter school building maintenance and repairs. Legislators also settled on $76 million for higher-education construction projects, including $25 million for a University of Florida Data Science and Information Technology building. And they agreed to give $1.5 million in recurring funds to the Department of Education to develop a two-year workforce program that would assist individuals aged 22 or older to get a high school diploma and career technical skills.
House and Senate budget writers also approved $250,000 for Florida Department of Education “litigation expenses.”
Cummings acknowledged that money will likely be needed to defend a new voucher program which would allow a maximum of 18,000 students to use taxpayer-funded scholarships for tuition at private-schools, which often include religious schools. The Florida Supreme Court in 2006 struck down a similar program.
“We think we have bold legislation, particularly in the school choice area, that we greatly support, and resources are needed in this very litigious society that we are in,” Cummings said.
In an unusual move, meanwhile, lawmakers agreed to change the law to allow a lieutenant governor “who permanently resides outside Leon County to have an appropriate facility as an official headquarters.”
The agreement allows Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez, a former state representative from Miami-Dade County, to receive a subsistence and travel allowance for days spent at the Capitol.
Bradley said the funding was requested by the governor’s office.
“She’s got a family and we want some flexibility for that situation,” Bradley said Monday, referring to Nuñez. “It was a request and we accommodated the request.”
In environmental spending, the budget will top by $60 million DeSantis’ $628.6 million request for Lake Okeechobee and other water projects.
The budget includes $322.6 million for Lake Okeechobee restoration and $100 million for Florida springs. Bradley said the budget also includes $33 million in new funds for the Florida Forever land preservation program, down from $100 million in current spending.
Bradley said more than $100 million will be available for Florida Forever because there will be money left over at the end of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
“They haven’t even spent all that money yet,” Bradley said of the current year’s funding. “They aren’t close to spending all that money yet. And so we’re not going to just put things in the budget just for show. The executive and the Cabinet need to demonstrate that they’re going to move those dollars out that we’re providing.”
The fiscal plan also includes $90 million for a tax relief package.
Other than lifting sales taxes during “holiday” periods on back-to-school items and for hurricane season supplies, the details have yet to be settled. The Senate is expected to take up the House proposal (HB 7123) on Wednesday.
In health care funding, Cummings said the Agency for Persons with Disabilities was given a lot of attention this year.
Lawmakers agreed to provide more than $28 million to increase wages paid to people who care for adults with developmental disabilities. Increasing the payments was a priority for the Florida Senate, but was not included in the House’s initial budget proposal.
“Those employees in those (residential) facilities, they don’t have a lobbyist. There’s not a special interest group. These are folks who are taking care of some of our most sick and vulnerable in the state of Florida. And they are not making a lot of money at all, and the House and Senate committed to raising their standard of living because we appreciate the things they do,” Bradley said.
The Legislature also agreed to allow the Agency for Persons with Disabilities to work in conjunction with the state Agency for Health Care Administration to develop a plan to redesign the I-budget. Though it’s a Medicaid program, the I-budget is one of the few that is administered outside of the statewide mandatory Medicaid managed-care program.