Amid revenue uncertainty, Florida lawmakers wade into budget

The Florida Capitol buildings in Tallahassee, Florida.
Posted at 5:18 PM, Mar 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-31 17:18:07-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Florida lawmakers dove into debating a state budget Wednesday amid uncertainty over how the ongoing pandemic will affect the next round of revenue projections and the state's bottom line.

While the state expects a $10 billion lift from federal coronavirus relief funds, how to use that money remains under debate.

What's not in question, however, is the need for heftier reserves to allow the state to better weather the unexpected -- like the COVID-19 outbreak that shuttered much of the economy last year and sent state revenues on a downward spiral. Both chambers propose keeping $5 billion in reserves.

"We need healthy reserves to protect the state's financial outlook to cover continuing costs for pandemic response and to ensure we have enough money available for hurricane season," said GOP Rep. Jay Trumbull, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

As the Republican-led Legislature got to work on the budget, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced even more spending -- $216 million for $1,000 bonuses to public school teachers and principals. The money would be drawn from the state's share of school emergency relief funds from last year's federal coronavirus relief bill.

The governor's singling out of teachers and principals prompted criticism from the Florida Education Association, which said that the largesse should be spread more widely.

"Recommending a $1,000 bonus for some school employees continues the governor's strategy of picking winners and losers in our schools," said FEA President Andrew Spar in a statement.

"Thinking beyond a one-time bonus, all educators deserve fair salaries that take into account and reward their years of experience," said Spar, whose association also represents custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and front office staff.

Earlier this month, the Republican governor had proposed similar one-time bonuses for first responders, using $208 million of the state's share of the latest federal relief package signed into law three weeks ago by President Joe Biden.

DeSantis initially proposed a $96.6 billion budget, which he later sought to augment with $4.1 billion in additional spending drawn from the relief funds.

The often-tedious budget process will dominate the remaining five weeks of the two-month legislative session, even as lawmakers take up scores of other bills left on their agenda.

Budget proposals are routinely adjusted during negotiations, and many of those changes will be influenced by the state revenue projects that will be released next week by state economists.

Last summer, the economists projected a revenue downturn of $5.4 billion over two years but rosier December data prompted the shortfall to be adjusted downward to $3.3 billion.

Federal relief money has helped the state better weather the financial turmoil.

The House includes some of the federal money in its $97.1 billion proposal, while the Senate's $95 billion spending plan does not. Both chambers want to set aside $5 billion in reserves.

In announcing its proposed budget, House leaders highlighted some of its priorities: increasing K-12 school funding by $181 per student, boosting funding for the Healthy Start children's program by $32 million, reserving $200 million in beach restoration and allocating $3.5 billion for repairing public buildings, including college and university facilities.

Both chambers will have to reconcile their differences in a host of arenas, including spending on education, health care and the environment. And they will have to do so while considering the governor's spending priorities.

During the House budget hearing, Democrats again called for expanding Medicaid -- a perennial effort that has gotten nowhere -- possibly by using federal pandemic funds to free up money to make the health care program more widely available.

The House budget outlays $32.4 billion for the Medicaid program, which serves 4.6 million Floridians -- about a fifth of the state's population.

Rep. Bobby DuBose, the Democratic co-leader in the House, called the Republican-authored proposal "a good start" in need of additional work.

"Floridians need a budget that addresses affordable housing, business closures, and provides direct relief for everyone impacted by the pandemic through no fault of their own, including expanding Medicaid to millions of Floridians without access to health care," DuBose said. "This budget isn't there yet."