Gov. DeSantis calls his state budget proposals “doable, possible.” But not everyone will be satisfied

Gov. Ron DeSantis outlines state budget priorities for 2020-21. Photo by Issac Morgan.

With plans to boost teacher pay and continue environmental initiatives, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday outlined his $91.4 billion state budget proposal for Florida in the coming year.

Despite nearly a $1 billion increase for teacher salaries and the continuation of some $625 million in water-quality initiatives, DeSantis’ spending for the 2020-21 budget year is only about $300 million over the current budget.

“It’s great to have bold ideas and do that. But we have to live in the realm of what’s possible,” DeSantis said at a press conference at the Florida Capitol. “I think all the stuff we have laid out is doable, possible and I think it will have a real impact.”

There were few major surprises in the Republican’s second budget proposal since he took office in January.

His “Bolder, Brighter, Better Future Budget” includes his already announced $603 million plan to establish a minimum $47,500 salary for all school teachers in Florida.

He also wants another $300 million for a program to award bonuses to teachers and principals, with a focus on educators at schools serving students from low-income families.

But aside from the pay increases for teachers and correctional officers in state prisons, the governor’s budget does not include a pay increase for other state workers.

And the statewide Florida Education Association was not satisfied. An FEA news release stated: “DeSantis’ budget proposal calls for a state-set salary for classroom teachers in public schools, removing pay decisions from local hands, and provides yet another iteration of Florida’s failed bonus plans. His plan completely leaves out the thousands of education staff professionals essential to students’ education.”

Here is a prior Florida Phoenix story on the teacher pay and bonus issues.

DeSantis wants to continue his environmental initiatives, with $625 million in water-quality programs, including $322 million in Everglades restoration projects, $50 million for natural springs and $22 million for projects to monitor and combat toxic algae outbreaks.

Republican legislative leaders were receptive to the governor’s spending plan for the new budget year, which begins July 1.

Senate President Bill Galvano said DeSantis’ proposal reflects “many priorities my Senate colleagues and I share.”

“We very much appreciate the governor submitting these recommendations nearly a month in advance of the deadline, which provides senators the opportunity to hear formal presentations of the governor’s recommended budget during our December committee week,” Galvano said in a statement.

Galvano said as senators review the governor’s proposal in more detail, the budget plan must also be evaluated in light of upcoming state revenue estimates and adjusted forecasts for programs like Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor and disabled.

House Speaker Jose Oliva called DeSantis’ proposal “most encouraging.”

“He is to be commended for a strict adherence to fiscal restraint. While the details of his ambitious teacher-pay program remain obscure, not a small matter, his commitment to responsible spending is crystal clear. A solid base upon which to begin our budget discussions,” the speaker said in a statement.

Lawmakers, who begin their annual 60-day session on Jan. 14, will have the last say in the state spending plan.

For instance, like last year, DeSantis wanted to fully fund the state’s affordable housing program at $387 million. But in their 2019 session lawmakers trimmed back the governor’s proposal, leaving $200 million in the housing program, while shifting $125 million to other programs.

DeSantis is also calling for $100 million in the Florida Forever program, including $84 million for critical environmental land purchases. Lawmakers reduced that to $33 million in the current budget.

Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, said the governor’s budget “includes many important environmental programs and initiatives.”

“Unfortunately, the challenges of our state are dire, and this budget does not go far enough to meet our needs,” she said in a statement. “Climate change is a ticking clock and state lawmakers keep hitting the snooze button….I urge the Legislature to build off the governor’s recommendations and create a budget that truly protects the future of Florida.”

Addressing a staffing crisis in the state prison system, where turnover among correctional officers is rampant, DeSantis’ budget includes a $61 million package to boost pay for officers. It includes a $1,500 increase for officers with at least two years of service and a $2,500 increase for officers serving at least five years.

DeSantis also wants $29 million for pilot project to look at changing the work shifts for correctional officers from 12 hours to 8.5 hours, but the plan remains controversial among staff members.

In health-care, DeSantis is not seeking any cuts in the Medicaid program. His plan has $54 million to aid in the ongoing opioid epidemic and $17 million in new funding for mental-health and substance-abuse programs.

DeSantis is also seeking $312 million in tax cuts.

The largest is what has become an annual effort to not collect school taxes that result from increases in property values. The tax break amounts to $247 million in the new budget year.

The governor’s tax cuts include continuing tax holidays for school and disaster supplies. He proposes an eight-day sales-tax exemption for school supplies, which represents a $56 million break. And he wants a 10-day tax exemption period for disaster supply purchases, which represents a $9 million break.

In terms of budget savings, DeSantis’ proposal will trim $84 million in budget projects from next year’s spending plan.

He also wants to eliminate 141 state jobs, although most are currently vacant. But his budget includes 690 new positions, with 292 in the state prison system and 109 staff positions at new nursing homes for veterans.

In higher education, DeSantis is seeking a modest $22.4 million increase for the state college system and a $24 million increase for the state universities.

The governor’s budget includes a $6.6 million increase in the state’s oversight of elections, with a focus on cybersecurity improvements.