Florida lawmakers open debate on $91.1 billion budget

Author: CURT ANDERSON/ Associated Press
(AP Photo/Phil Sears)

Florida lawmakers debated a $91.1 billion state budget Friday with bipartisan support for the fiscal year that begins July 1, but must wait until Saturday to put it to a final vote.

The Republican-led House and Senate reached an agreement on the spending blueprint earlier this week, but it cannot pass until after a required 72-hour “cooling off” period — which will run until about 1:30 p.m. Saturday. Lawmakers began debate Friday so the only thing remaining is a final vote on the session’s 61st day followed by adjournment on one day of overtime.

The budget is the one bill legislators are required to pass.

“I think it’s the largest amount of money we have put to work for the people of the state of Florida,” said Sen. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican.

The budget has significant Democratic backing, though some criticize its failure once again to give state workers an across-the-board pay raise, meager funding for many historically black universities and other issues. Yet Rep. Kionne McGhee of Cutler Bay, the House Democratic leader, was among many in his party who said they would vote for it.

“While this budget is not perfect, we cannot allow for our personal concerns to get in the way,” McGhee said. “We left the politics aside.”

Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Winter Park said this year is the first time he will support the budget in the GOP-dominated House.

“I see both parties’ input in the budget. And I do see our leaders have listened to our concerns,” Smith said.

Public schools, which make up a large chunk of the spending, would see an overall increase of more than $782 million or about 3.7% in the main account compared with last year, according to budget documents. That translates to a little over $242 additionally per student for the coming school year.

The agreement calls for $363 million in money that Florida’s 67 school districts can use to give bonuses to the most effective teachers and principals as well as other priorities. It includes more than $5 billion for state universities, $37.6 billion for Medicaid and other health and human services programs and sets aside $3.4 billion for the “rainy day” reserve fund.

The legislation includes $220 million for a variety of Hurricane Michael recovery needs in the Florida Panhandle, bringing the state’s total commitment since the Category 5 storm struck in October to more than $1.8 billion. Republican Sen. Rob Bradley of Fleming Island, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the money to help victims of the hurricane drove many other decisions in the spending plan.

“As we worked on our state budget, the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Michael was a top consideration,” Bradley said. “I believe we have put forward a solid plan at the state level to ensure long-term sustained recovery for Florida’s Panhandle communities.”

A top budget priority for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis was funding to address Everglades restoration, outbreaks along the coasts of red tide and blue-green algae, protection of freshwater springs and other environmental issues. The Legislature’s budget exceeds his request by approving more than $682 million for water-related issues. It includes $40 million to finish raising Tamiami Trail in South Florida so it will not block Everglades water flow to Florida Bay.

One of the most disputed items this year was whether to renew the Visit Florida tourism agency, which the House wanted to let expire as planned under current law in October. House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican, was among those criticizing the agency’s spending practices and contracts.

But DeSantis wanted Visit Florida to continue and lawmakers ultimately decided to approve $50 million in funding, extending its life until June 30, 2020. It is less than the $76 million the governor proposed.

“We know that tourism marketing has a direct correlation to the number of visitors who come to Florida each year,” said Rep. Loranne Ausley, a Tallahassee Democrat. “I think we should be discussing a full funding for their budget so they can get back to the business of promoting and marketing.”

The budget also includes $3.8 million for a new state aircraft for DeSantis, who has been using a hand-me-down plane with mechanical problems that once required an emergency landing. Lawmakers determined the governor needs a dependable plane. Former Gov. Rick Scott, a multimillionaire, sold the previous state aircraft because he had his own.

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