FL Legislature approves state budget amid fears COVID-19 could wreck their plan

Florida Capitol
The Historic Capitol, foreground, and Florida Capitol buildings. Photo, Colin Hackley

The Florida Legislature, its numbers diminished amid concerns that travel between members’ districts and Tallahassee could facilitate spread of COVID-19, approved a $93.2 billion state budget Thursday intended to fund the state through the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

Only 104 of the 120 members of the state House were on hand to vote on a series of bills needed to finance state government — and those present first underwent screening by teams of doctors for symptoms of the respiratory disease.

In the 40-members Senate, the number voting was 32.

Members voted knowing the pandemic could blow their handiwork out of the water. Florida relies heavily on taxes on economic activity, including the sales tax. Yet tourist attractions, bars and nightclubs, restaurants, and other businesses are operating at diminished capacity if at all.

The budget includes $50 million to finance COVID-19 response, and the state is holding an unusually large $3.8 billion in reserves.

“It’s not going to be enough,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, a Democrat from Broward County, which is carrying the highest coronavirus caseload thus far. “I know we don’t like to dip into our reserves, but with the help of those reserves we can make this happen.”

State Rep. Anna Eskamani. Credit: Colin Hackley

“I don’t want to be in a body that increases fees on everyday people. I don’t want to see us relying on drivers’ license fees, license plate fees, health care fees,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat.

“The pain and fear has begun,” said Sen. Tom Lee, Republican representing parts of Hillsborough, Pasco, and Polk counties. Compared to the atmosphere following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, “This feels worse,” he said.

Senate budget chairman Rob Bradley, a Republican from northeast Florida, said budget writers did the best they could.

“This is a budget that did not ignore reality but it also did not overreact either,” he said. “We accounted for uncertainty.”

Following adjournment, House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Miami Republican, and Senate President Bill Galvano, a fellow Republican representing Manatee and part of Hillsborough counties, were not prepared to speculate on whether the Legislature might need to return in a special session once COVID-19 costs are better understood.

In fact, Oliva struck an optimistic chord, saying the sudden downturn could be short-lived.

“A vaccine could turn things around just as quickly,” he said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared more solemn. At a second press conference, when Oliva reached out to shake the governor’s hand, DeSantis drew back, declining physical contact as advised by health authorities.

DeSantis told reporters in his suite of offices the state faces difficult challenges but has some economic tools to work with.

“We’re in a different world than we were in a couple of weeks ago,” the governor said.

“We entered this session with unemployment going down, down, down to 2.8 percent. And now we’re going to be exiting this on the back end of this COVID looking at a different economic picture.”

Fortunately, he said, Florida’s economy was strong before the pandemic hit, providing a financial cushion that Floridians will need.

“Once this passes — and it will pass — I think we’ll be able to pick back up and start going,” DeSantis said.

He added that he will be more rigorous when reviewing budget language financing projects sought by members for their home districts. “It’s safe to say that the vetoes will just simply be different today than they would have been had this budget come out two months ago. I don’t see any way around that,” he said.

The outlook for human health is not as rosy, he said, with test kits, swabs and protective gear for health-care workers still in short supply. He said the health authorities are struggling to fill gaping holes in knowledge about this unique virus, which they belatedly learned is spread by people with no symptoms, and not just by people who are visibly sick.

Given the dire situation in the state, there was little of the ceremony that usually attends “sine die” — the formal closing of the annual session.

The chambers did indulge in a truncated version of the traditional “hankie drop” closing the session. Usually, crowds of people swarm the Capitol rotunda between the chambers as officers from the House and Senate drop handkerchiefs to coordinate the final gavels. The ceremony evolved as a way for presiding officers with no clear sight-line to each other to time a simultaneous adjournment.

This year the crowds were absent — having been discouraged from attending the budget vote. In fact, the House and Senate galleries were closed to all but the press. Even press numbers were reduced — only six reporters were visible in the Senate; others watched remotely via a Florida Channel feed.

And in lieu of the traditional handshake, Galvano and Oliva settled for an elbow bump.

Although the tone of the floor debate in the House was solidly bipartisan, with Democrats praising the Republican leadership for at least hearing them out, Florida Democratic chairwoman Terrie Rizzo issued a written statement criticizing the Legislature’s failure to act on Democratic priorities, including expansion of Medicaid.

She also noted legislation passing new limits on abortions, making Florida one of a handful of states requiring both parental notification and consent when a teen seeks the medical procedure.

“Republicans spent the past two months passing an extreme agenda that doesn’t address, much less solve, the urgent challenges Floridians are facing. They failed to help Floridians by refusing to expand access to health care, ignoring the urgent challenges Floridians are grappling with daily,” she said.

“The Republican Legislature and Gov. DeSantis have taken a page from Donald Trump’s playbook, giving handouts to their donors and special interests while delivering broken promises to the people of Florida.”

Phoenix reporter Laura Cassels contributed to this report.