Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature quickly put the finishing touches on a record $91.1 billion spending plan Saturday, meeting numerous requests from freshman Gov. Ron DeSantis.
While declaring “great wins for conservatives,” along with environmental protections that should appeal to Democrats, the governor said he intends to use his line-item veto power but didn’t specify what spending he might target.
“It’s going to be under $91.1 billion when I get through with the budget, don’t worry about that,” DeSantis said during a traditional “sine die” ceremony in the Capitol’s fourth-floor rotunda after lawmakers ended the annual legislative session.
The Senate voted 38-0 to approve the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, and the House followed with a 106-2 vote. The only dissenters were Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, and Rep. Cindy Polo, D-Miramar.
The budget includes high-profile spending issues such as $680 million for the Everglades and other water projects; a $242-per-student increase in school funding; and $50 million to maintain for at least another year the state’s embattled tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida.
The package also would provide a little more than $220 million to help areas of the Panhandle hit last year by Hurricane Michael; $45 million for Senate President Bill Galvano’s priority to add or build toll roads; and $40 million to retain the Job Growth Grant Fund, an economic program created under former Gov. Rick Scott.
DeSantis will have a chance to veto parts of the budget when it formally reaches his desk.
As DeSantis prepares to review the budget, Galvano, R-Bradenton told the governor Saturday, “Just trust me. It’s all good.”
Galvano later told reporters, “I hope that he really studies and understands what is there and gets to the bottom of it as opposed to just making a statement in terms of a number to cut.”
Scott, now a U.S. senator, made $615 million cuts in 2011, his first year as governor. Last year, in his final year in the governor’s mansion, Scott removed just $64 million from the budget.
DeSantis implied that Galvano’s toll road priority, which is spelled out in a bill (SB 7068) that will soon go to the governor, will likely survive. But other spending could be on the chopping block.
“Obviously there’s certain things government shouldn’t be doing at any level. If that’s in there, that’s going to be a candidate,” DeSantis said. “There are some things that maybe government should do but should be local, and not state government.”
The spending plan includes $3.4 billion in reserves, but DeSantis indicated he would like to see a larger amount. Vetoes of spending could boost the reserves.
“The economy is great. I wish I could say we’re going to have 3.6 (percent) unemployment ad infinitum,” DeSantis said. “But I think we just need to prepare ourselves that the economy is cyclical. I hope it’s not next month, next year, three years from now. But eventually things are going to get tighter. We all have to recognize that.”
House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, said late Friday the session had included “extraordinary” collaboration between the Legislature and the executive branch, noting that DeSantis had served in Congress.
“There was a legitimate commitment on behalf of the governor to work with the Legislature, having been a legislator (in Congress),” Oliva said. “The president of the Senate and I are good friends, trust a great deal in one another.”
The budget also earmarks $10.2 billion in general-revenue funding for health care and other social service programs, with much of that state money drawing federal matching funds. In all, the health and human services budget totals $37.6 billion.
While the Legislature made deep cuts to hospital funding in recent years, the new budget does not include Medicaid reductions for hospitals. Lawmakers, however agreed to continue for another year eliminating Medicaid “retroactive” eligibility for elderly and disabled people. Pregnant women and children have been exempted from the policy and will continue to have a traditional three-month retroactive period to enroll in the Medicaid program when needing services.
The Legislature initially agreed last year to eliminate Medicaid retroactive eligibility, a move that saves about $100 million. They agreed to extend the policy for another year by including it in the new budget. The budget expires annually, which means lawmakers will have to address it again next year.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said people often focus on large-dollar or high-priority budget issues. But Bradley said one of the brightest spots in the budget is a change that could help adults with disabilities who want to work. The change would allow adults with disabilities to earn about $50,000 annually without losing access to Medicaid benefits that assist people with activities of daily living.
“It’s going to make a real difference in people’s lives,” Bradley said. “Many people in the state of Florida will be able to get better-paying jobs, make more money and get the benefits they deserve.”
The budget is the largest in state history, topping by 2.7 percent the $88.7 spending plan for the current year.
House Majority Leader Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, said the increase is “organic,” due to the state’s population growth and additional tourism.
Environmentalists, however, expressed disappointment in the session, in part because the budget includes $34.5 million for the Florida Forever land-preservation program — much less than the program has often received in the past..
“This year’s amount is a far cry from the $300 million this program received for decades. It is also well short of both last year’s $100 million appropriation and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ budget recommendation this year of $100 million,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of the Florida Conservation Voters. “To say we are upset would be an understatement.”
Legislative leaders have pointed to funds remaining from the current year’s allocation to Florida Forever, which wasn’t as much of a priority under Scott and the previous state Cabinet.
Here are 10 big issues from the 2019 session:
BUDGET: Lawmakers passed a $91.1 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, slightly smaller than the $91.3 billion plan proposed by DeSantis. Republican leaders touted issues such as a $242-per-student increase in school funding and an infusion of money for Everglades restoration and water-quality projects. The House and Senate also agreed on a tax package that includes back-to-school and disaster-preparedness tax “holidays.”
CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS: In one of the most-controversial issues of the session, lawmakers passed a plan that would carry out a constitutional amendment designed to restore the voting rights of felons who have fulfilled their sentences. Critics argued the legislation was too restrictive and would prevent many felons from voting. In the final hours of the session, lawmakers also passed a bill that would make it harder to get citizens’ initiatives on the ballot.
ENVIRONMENT: After massive problems last year with red tide and toxic algae in Southwest Florida and Southeast Florida, DeSantis made a top priority of water-related issues. Lawmakers included about $682 million in the budget for water-quality efforts and Everglades restoration. One of the highest-profile environmental issues of the session — a proposed ban on the oil- and gas-drilling technique known as “fracking” — did not pass.
HEALTH CARE: Oliva came into the session with a focus on overhauling health-care regulations and largely was successful. In part, he pushed through elimination of the long-controversial “certificate of need” regulatory process for new hospitals and services. Also, Oliva played a key role in passing a plan that could lead to importing lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, an issue that DeSantis has championed.
HURRICANE MICHAEL: As lawmakers met in the Capitol, Northwest Florida residents, businesses and local governments continued struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. The House and Senate received hundreds of millions of dollars in requests for assistance and put about $220 million in the new budget for recovery efforts. Also, a tax package includes measures to help farmers hammered by the October storm.
INSURANCE: In a big win for the insurance industry, lawmakers approved an overhaul of the controversial insurance practice known as “assignment of benefits.” The longstanding practice involves policyholders signing over benefits to contractors, and insurers contend that abuses and litigation are driving up insurance premiums. Lawmakers took steps such as limiting attorney fees in so-called AOB cases.
MEDICAL MARIJUANA: Going into the session, DeSantis essentially gave lawmakers an offer they couldn’t refuse as he sought to eliminate a ban on smokable medical marijuana. If lawmakers didn’t act, DeSantis threatened to drop an appeal of a court ruling that said the smoking ban, included in a 2017 law, was unconstitutional. Lawmakers quickly went along with DeSantis’ request and eliminated the ban in March.
SCHOOL CHOICE: The Republican-dominated Legislature continued expanding school choice, including passing a new vouchers program known as the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program. Under the program, state money will be used to send as many as 18,000 students to private schools next year. Critics contend the plan is unconstitutional, citing a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that struck down a similar vouchers program.
SCHOOL SAFETY: Pointing to recommendations by a commission created after last year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, lawmakers passed a wide-ranging bill designed to bolster school safety. The bill included issues such as improving mental-health services, but almost all of the debate focused on a controversial provision that would expand the school “guardian” program to allow armed classroom teachers.
TRANSPORTATION: In a top priority for Galvano, lawmakers approved a plan aimed at expanding or building three toll roads. The plan, which drew opposition from environmentalists, would extend the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay region to the Georgia border; extend the Florida Turnpike west to hook up with the Suncoast Parkway; and create a multi-use corridor, including a toll road, from Polk County to Collier County.
–News Service of Florida