Legislative leaders completed a roughly $92 billion budget on Saturday afternoon, settling numerous education and health care issues as they fine-tuned the state spending plan in anticipation of an economic hit from the novel coronavirus.
Senate budget chief Rob Bradley and his House counterpart Travis Cummings said the fiscal plan could be available to the public Sunday evening or early Monday, setting off a 72-hour cooling off period. Lawmakers will return to Tallahassee Wednesday or Thursday to vote on the budget before sending it to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
House and Senate leaders on Friday extended the 2020 legislative session, which was scheduled to end Friday, for another week to complete work on the state budget, the only must-pass bill of the 60-day session.
Bradley and Cummings, Republicans who are both from Fleming Island, redirected more than $300 million into reserves, dipping into areas such as the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, Medicaid reversions, and the $47.7 million tax package (HB 7097) that was approved late Friday night, to brace against the coronavirus. The virus has prompted numerous entertainment venues, such as theme parks, to temporarily shut down, a move that could have a substantial impact on a state economy heavily dependent on tourism.
“We have always said we were going to be very aggressive about our reserves,” Bradley said. “We were extra aggressive this year.”
Bradley, calling it a “responsible approach,” said the state’s overall reserves are now at $3.8 billion.
“We are prepared when it comes to dealing with any potential revenue downturns because of what is happening with the coronavirus,” he added.
Cummings said the goal was to spread the impacts “throughout our state budget,” which includes $25 million to help DeSantis and his administration combat the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus, known as COVID-19.
Even after making adjustments to accommodate a fragile economic outlook, the spending plan maintains or comes close to many of DeSantis’ environmental and educational proposals.
The $500 million top-line number for teacher-pay increases, however, falls short of the governor’s $900 million request for teacher raises.
DeSantis last year declared that 2020 would be “the year of the teacher,” and asked lawmakers for $602 million that would have set a statewide $47,500 minimum salary for all public school teachers. He also wanted $300 million for a new teacher bonus program.
In response, the Legislature dropped all plans for a teacher bonus program and set aside $500 million for teacher salary increases. Lawmakers agreed to put $400 million toward raising teachers’ minimum salaries and $100 million into giving veteran teachers pay hikes.
Teacher pay took a hit, in part, because of the coronavirus spread, Bradley said.
“When the proposal was made we did not have the situation that we have in our state, in the country and in the world, so we make decisions based on the realities that are facing us here in mid-March,” Bradley told reporters after meeting publicly with Cummings in the Capitol on Saturday.
DeSantis’s office estimated it would cost $602 million to meet the minimum salary statewide. Bradley said the money lawmakers allocated will help “some districts” get closer to the minimum-salary threshold.
“The overall average is going to be close to the governor’s goal,” Bradley said.
In a prepared statement, Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram praised lawmakers’ decision to focus on raises rather than bonuses.
“The allocation of $500 million for teacher salary increases is welcomed and appreciated. We recognize this is an important down payment in what must be a multi-year investment, and it was accomplished while facing significant challenges,” Ingram said Saturday.
The two chambers agreed to not trim $64 million in supplemental Medicaid funding that currently goes to 28 facilities that treat the majority of the Medicaid patients in the state. The push to eliminate the supplemental payments and instead direct the money to increase the base Medicaid rates paid to all hospitals was being pushed by HCA Healthcare. It also was a priority for Bradley.
The Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, whose members benefit from the supplemental payments, dubbed the money the “critical care fund.” Justin Senior, the CEO of the organization, issued a statement Saturday thanking lawmakers for keeping the funding intact.
“Those funds go to the hospitals that see the sickest and most complex patients in the state. Our safety net hospitals are on the front lines in the fight against the coronavirus in Florida and we deeply appreciate the Legislature’s funding commitment to provide patients with top outcomes,” Senior said.
Lawmakers also gave last-minute approval to $1.5 million for DeSantis’ office to use on litigation.
“That’s part of the give-and-take between the executive (branch) and the budget-makers, to make sure there is enough money to pay lawyers in case there is litigation,” Bradley said.
Cummings said the money could be used in case the state is sued over potential coronavirus-related disputes. The funds also could be used for the state’s lawsuit against the embattled Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which is accused of misusing public money to pad the salary of its former chief executive officer.
Late Friday, House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, cautioned lawmakers to anticipate bigger budget challenges next year — or possibly sooner — because of COVID-19.
DeSantis told reporters Saturday that three Floridians have died after contracting the virus, with the latest victim a 68-year-old Orange County woman who died in California.
“What we do know is that it has already become a very serious economic risk. That we know,” Oliva told reporters after Friday’s floor session. “The impacts of this will be felt. The question now is, will it be felt now before the new Legislature organizes and we have to come back or, with enough money in reserves, will we be able to sustain that until the new Legislature gets organized (following the November elections)?”
Bradley on Saturday noted that DeSantis has already signed an executive order that should give him the needed economic flexibility for the state’s response to the crisis.
“The money that is available is more than just the reserves that we thought we were going to have when we started building the budget,” Bradley said. “I think there are resources available if he needs them.”
DeSantis on Saturday raised the operational level at the state Emergency Operations Center and eased driver’s license renewal requirements for the next 30 days.
Also Saturday, Agriculture Nikki Fried said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has granted waivers to the state that will allow school districts, childcare institutions, and community organizations to continue to provide meals to children whose schools are closed in response to the pandemic.
–News Service of Florida