Facing a big hit from the coronavirus, Florida lawmakers are expected to approve a $93.2 billion state budget

Florida Capitol. Credit: Colin Hackley.

Florida lawmakers are poised to approve a $93.2 billion state budget on Thursday that includes higher salaries for teachers, a boost in affordable housing funds, and $25 million to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

But the ambitious spending plan for 2020-21, which takes effect on July 1 and is more than $2 billion higher than the current budget, may take a hit in the coming months if the virus outbreak cuts into state revenues that highly rely on tourism and other consumer spending.

After Friday’s floor session, House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Miami-Dade County Republican, said the outbreak of the new coronavirus that’s been linked to the respiratory ailment “has already become a very serious economic risk.”

“The impacts of this will be felt,” Oliva said. “The question now is, will it be felt now before the new Legislature organizes [in November] 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?”

Senate budget chairman Rob Bradley and House budget chairman Travis Cummings, both Clay County Republicans, said the new budget contains $3.8 billion in reserves in anticipation of potential revenue shortfalls, such as in the sales tax collections.

As part of their final negotiations, lawmakers trimmed a $193 million tax-cutting package  (HB 7097) to less than $50 million and boosted reserve funds by an additional $300 million.

“We have always said we were going to be very aggressive about our reserves,” Bradley said. “We are prepared when it comes to dealing with any potential revenue downturns because of what is happening with the coronavirus.”

If the $25 million is not adequate to the coronavirus response, Bradley noted that under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ emergency order the governor will have access to more funding if he thinks it is necessary.

Teacher Pay

DeSantis asked lawmakers to increase minimum pay for starting teachers to $47,500 in the coming school year.

But lawmakers fell short of the governor’s $600 million plan, approving $400 million for the minimum salaries and another $100 million to increase teacher pay for veteran educators.

Nonetheless, Bradley said, the funding is enough to come “very close” to an average minimum starting salary of $47,500, although some districts will be below that level.

“We landed at a place where everybody won,” Bradley said. “This is the year of the teacher. The governor promised it, the promise was kept.”

Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, said the salary increases are “welcomed and appreciated,” but it may take longer to bring all teachers up to the minimum $47,500 goal.

“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 in a written statement.

The budget increases per-student funding to $7,849 for the 2020-21 school year, a $184 increase over the current year.

Affordable housing

After raiding the state’s affordable housing fund for more than $2 billion over the last two decades, the new state budget fully funds the housing programs at $370 million in the new year.

DeSantis and the Senate had pushed for full funding and, this year, House leaders agreed.

Jaimie Ross, who leads the housing advocacy group known as the Sadowski Coalition, called the decision “momentous.”

“We are relieved to have the Sadowski program funding put to use for Florida’s lower-paid workforce, seniors, and special needs populations living on fixed incomes. Most importantly, this should usher in the end of housing trust fund sweeps,” Ross said in a written statement.

State worker pay

The new budget will provide a 3 percent across-the-board raise for all state workers, beginning Oct. 1.

It also means a 3 percent pay hike for the governor, Cabinet members, and judges. DeSantis’ salary will rise to $134,181 on Oct. 1. Cabinet members’ pay will increase to $132,841. Supreme Court justices will receive $227,218, with appellate judges at $174,641 and circuit judges at $165,509 a year.

To address turnover among correctional officers in the state prison system, the new budget, in addition to the 3 percent raise, will provide increases based on the time the officers have served in the system. For instance, correctional officers with more than five years of service will get an $2,500-a-year adjustment.

Other areas

The budget will provide $100 million for the Florida Forever environmental land-buying program. It will more than triple the $33 million being spent in the program this year, although it falls short of the $300 million a year the state spent during the program’s peak years.

After the House threatened to end all funding for Visit Florida, the state’s major tourism-promotion agency, lawmakers agreed to provide $50 million for the agency this year and extend its life through at least 2023.

Lawmakers said Visit Florida may be playing a key role in the state’s effort to revive tourism following the hit from the coronavirus.

The House and Senate will vote on the budget on Thursday because they failed to finish the 2020 legislative session by Friday’s deadline.

The 457-page appropriations bill (HB 5001) was published on Sunday evening, with the requirement that lawmakers wait at least 72 hours before the final vote on the bill.