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$3.3 billion separates Florida budget plans from House and Senate

Published on: 02/17/2022

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A $3.3 billion bottom-line difference divides spending plans in the Legislature, with the House and Senate awash in dollars from a recovering state economy layered on top of COVID-19 relief aid from Washington. On a 102-14 vote, the House approved Wednesday its slightly slimmer $105.3 billion state budget proposal for next year. The Senate is poised to advance its bulkier $108.6 billion plan Thursday, setting the stage for negotiations between the two sides toward reaching a compromise package by the session’s scheduled March 11 close. A $3.3 billion gap sounds like a lot. But it’s easier to grasp – and for lawmakers to narrow – when viewed as smaller differences scattered across scores of spending priorities and involving a few million dollars here and there. The House does less for Florida’s 2.9 million school children. It boosts per-student spending by almost $323, a 4% increase, compared to a roughly $352 increase in the Senate. Both sides top an average $8,000 per child for the first time. But the House’s push to take $200 million in state funds away from 12 counties that required school masks last year – ignoring Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order banning such mandates – has emerged as a flashpoint. The potential cost: Florida bill that penalizes districts could cost Tallahassee schools their security chief An about face: Florida Gov. DeSantis sides with House in penalizing school districts that required masks DeSantis has endorsed the approach. But the Senate, so far, hasn’t backed the penalty, which would also reward 55 counties that went along with the Republican governor. “This has gotten far too political, and our children have carried the burden of the pandemic while losing time in the classroom,” said Jules Scholles, a Sarasota County public school parent who was among several who took part in a Wednesday Zoom call to voice opposition to the cut, which would remove $12.1 million from her county. The fight carried over to the House floor Wednesday, where the schools shift drew renewed attack from Democrats: “I can’t vote for something that has this poison pill in it,” said Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura. But Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, who promoted the $200 million redirection of dollars, defended the step. "Laws were broken. And they were broken for nothing," he told the House. With the state’s red-hot housing market making home prices and rent unaffordable for many Floridians, lawmakers are likely to approve the biggest amount of dollars for lower-cost housing in 14 years, since the Great Recession. But it comes after lawmakers helped fuel the housing crunch by taking $2.5 billion intended for affordable housing over the past two decades and using it on other programs and projects. They swore off such sweeps of the housing trust fund last year, passing legislation prohibiting such action, after taking one last $200 million. Red-hot housing market burns many: Sizzling housing market in Florida hurts many, but help slow to come from legislature Still, there remains a divide between the two sides in how much is available. The Senate this year is ready to put $337.7 million into housing; the House $268.1 million. But even those levels are below what DeSantis proposed in his spending plan: $355.5 million for housing. The House goes hard at hospitals, taking $252 million away in Medicaid reimbursement rates, with leaders arguing that Florida hospitals’ profit levels have soared during the COVID-19 pandemic. While hospitals are struggling with a massive nursing shortage, Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami, the House health care budget-writer, would steer $100 million of the rate cut toward nurse training programs. Hospitals are pushing back against the House approach and the claims they’ve been reaping in record-setting profits. The Senate sides a little closer with hospitals, and doesn’t include the rate cuts, but the House and Senate are further at odds over salaries for a range of health care providers. The Senate spends $700 million more than the House on health care, a contentious gulf that has to close in negotiations. DeSantis leads, GOP follows: A session mid-term progress report for DeSantis: In 'free' Florida, GOP lawmakers in lockstep Washington dollars help Florida: Florida Gov. DeSantis bashes Biden while spending Washington bucks The two chambers have only a few disagreements on green spending. But Senate President Wilton Simpson’s push to give sugar and vegetable farmers a guarantee that their water supply won’t be diminished as part of Lake Okeechobee management efforts loomed as a big friction point. Simpson has softened the measure after DeSantis came out opposed to the budget-linked provision by the Senate. The House has so far steered clear of the Senate idea. Lake O water wars: Would DeSantis veto state budget to kill Big Sugar water supply bill? With that conflict potentially settled, funding for Everglades restoration and water programs is substantial – almost $1.4 billion in the Senate, and $1.2 billion in the House. Florida Forever, whose funding is often cut by lawmakers, looks ready to receive at least $100 million from both sides. Springs restoration, beach renourishment and efforts to help cities make infrastructure improvements stemming from climate change are nearing agreement. There is spending in both the House and Senate aimed at bringing teachers up to a minimum salary of $47,500, and the two sides mostly agree on pay increases for law enforcement, correctional officers, state firefighters and juvenile justice officers. But for state workers, there’s a divide. More: DeSantis budget includes raise for state workers, new emergency operations center The House is seeking a 5.38% increase for the state workforce, citing a need for a bump amid inflation. The Senate, though, is targeting a minimum-wage increase to assure that all state workers earn at least $15 per hour. Cultural and museum grants are almost in alignment, with the Senate at $39.2 million and the House advancing $37.1 million. How far the money will be distributed among more than 700 grant applicants is still to be settled. There’s going to be plenty of dollars left on the table. DeSantis in his budget proposal recommended $15 billion in reserves. And the Legislature may wind up near that level, with the House already setting aside $7 billion in general revenue it didn’t touch in putting together its budget. The House also is creating a $2 billion “inflation response fund,” available for state agencies to tap in the coming year if routine costs continue to climb. And, since Republicans control the House, it is formally named the Budgeting for Inflation that Drives Elevated Needs, or BIDEN Fund. John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at [email protected], or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport

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