COVID-19 puts the governor’s review of legislation and new state budget on the back burner

Florida Capitol. Credit: Colin Hackley.

The COVID-19 crisis has upended the normal review by Gov. Ron DeSantis of more than 200 bills and the $93.2 billion state budget that came out of the 2020 Florida Legislature.

With the annual legislative session concluded a week ago, this would be the beginning of the process whereby House and Senate leaders begin sending batches of bills to the governor for his review.

DeSantis has the option of signing the bills, the most likely outcome; vetoing them; or letting them become law without his signature. He has 15 days to act once the bills are sent to him.

The most important bill is the annual appropriations act (HB 5001) for the 2020-21 budget year, which begins July 1. The governor has the additional power of a line-item veto over the budget bill, meaning he can kill individual appropriations he deems unacceptable.

But the coronavirus outbreak has shattered any sense of normalcy, even when it comes to a governor reviewing bills and enacting a new state budget.

DeSantis, a Republican governor in his second year in office, said Wednesday that the response to COVID-19 will remain his top priority, with the expectation that he will take more time in dealing with the bills and the state budget.

“Since the beginning of this month, my office has been 24-7 on COVID-19,” DeSantis said, noting he has put off the appointment of two new justices on the Florida Supreme Court until May because of the health crisis.

As of Thursday, DeSantis had acted on nine bills sent to him while the Legislature was in its 66-day session. But another 197 bills remain in the possession of the Legislature, legislative records show.

“The bills are going to be held. We’re going to get to those in due time,” DeSantis said. “But I think it would probably not be a good use of my time to be going through a lot of legislation right now.”

He said he would make an exception if the legislation could help during the coronavirus response.

“If there’s something in one of that stack of bills that would be effective immediately, that would help things, that would be different,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis also has plenty of time to act on the new budget, which will not take effect until more than three months from now. He and legislative leaders say they will know more about the economic impact of the coronavirus, which is expected to deplete tourist-related sales tax collections in Florida,within the next few months.

“I think the budget is in flux, let’s put it that way,” DeSantis said. “So, I’m not going do a signing ceremony tomorrow about any of this stuff until we kind of get our feet under us a little bit more.”

DeSantis said he still hopes to protect the $500 million teacher-pay package passed as part of the $93.2 billion budget by the Legislature, while acknowledging the uncertainty over coronavirus’ effect on state revenue.

In a memo sent to members on Wednesday, Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, provided some insight as to how state leaders will evaluate the impact of the virus on state spending.

The positive news is that tax collections through February were running about $141 million above the estimate for the 2019-20 budget year, meaning the additional funds “will help buffer against anticipated revenue losses in subsequent months,” Galvano said.

“These dollars are unanticipated, not included in the prior estimate for general revenue, and will be added to our $4 billion total state reserve,” Galvano said.

Galvano said the March revenue collections “and more so the subsequent report for April, will provide our [state analysts] with the first concrete pieces of data they will need to formally adjust our revenue estimates.”

The April collections, which will be heavily depressed by the economic slowdown, will not be available until late May, although that will still leave more than month before the new state budget takes effect.