DeSantis signs new state budget that boosts teacher pay but leaves many of FL’s needs unmet

Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares to sign into law a $101.5 billion state budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year during a news conference in New Smyrna Beach. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Gov. Ron DeSantis bragged when signing into law a record $101.5 billion state budget on Wednesday about spending boosts for education, mental health assistance, and environmental protection.

He didn’t mention that the new budget stiffs affordable housing, lacks any increase in unemployment benefits, and continues to deny Medicaid benefits for struggling Floridians.

But he did claim the document keeps Florida among the states with the lowest per capital tax burdens.

“I think the budget really reflects a state government that is meeting the core concerns of Floridians,” DeSantis said during a news conference in New Smyrna Beach.

The bill signing came one day after the budget landed on DeSantis’ desk. It takes effect with the new fiscal year on July 1.

The budget will stash $9.5 billion into reserves, making it available for future emergencies but meaning it won’t be spent on Floridians’ immediate economic and health needs.

DeSantis also said that he had vetoed $1.35 billion in federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan — $1 billion for an Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund and $350 million for a “budget stabilization fund.” The $1 billion was the largest veto item in the state budget.

“If we were to go forward with it, we were going to run into risk of having the feds come after us for it,” DeSantis said.

Additionally, lawmakers voted to spend some $1 billion in new online sales tax revenue but not to increase unemployment compensation levels (now $275 per week) to $375, opting instead for a tax break for employers.

The Legislature did vote to extend Medicaid to new mothers and infants, at a cost of $240 million, but again refused to extend that program to more poor adults notwithstanding the lingering pandemic, even though the federal government would have shouldered the vast majority of the cost under the Affordable Care Act.

State spending will grow notwithstanding the COVID-19 pandemic that shuttered many businesses and tossed Floridians out of work — in significant part due to some $10 billion in COVID-related federal aid, including assistance approved after Democrats gained control of Congress and the White House last year.

Legislative Democrats made sure to point that out in written statements Wednesday.

“You wouldn’t know it from the governor’s press conference, but Florida’s budget was bolstered by billions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden,” House caucus co-leader Bobby DuBose of Broward County said.

“That money, and the additional billions sent to local communities, avoided a potential budget crisis and will help jump start Florida’s recovery. It’s unfortunate that more of those dollars won’t go directly into the pockets of Floridians to aid our state’s recovery.

Overall, the line-item vetoes totaled more than $1.5 billion, including the $1.35 billion from the federal funds. DeSantis said the vetoed federal funds would instead be repurposed into other pandemic-related recovery efforts.

DeSantis argued that his insistence, following the brief stay-home order he issued last spring, on reopening businesses and schools spared Florida the deep recessions other states have experienced. Returns of state revenues during recent months have exceeded projections by roughly $500 million, he said.

The budget contains $550 million to continue DeSantis’ push to establish a $47,500 minimum salary for public school teachers. There’s money for $1,000 bonuses for teachers and principals, plus first responders. There’s nearly $140 million for mental health services for children and adults. The Florida Department of Education’s $10.3 billion infrastructure priority list is fully funded for the year.

Environmental spending includes $415 million for Everglades restoration and $302 million to fight toxic algae blooms.

Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar issued a written statement praising aspects of the budget but wishing for more..

“This budget fails veteran teachers, the experienced professionals we’re struggling to keep in classrooms, and it fails to reward the support staff who are essential to educating our students. It funds unaccountable private and religious schools at the expense of the public schools that educate 90 percent of Florida’s students,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misreported what would happen to the vetoed federal money intended for the emergency trust fund. It remains with the state.

Michael Moline
Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.