As the Florida House and Senate prepare to pass their initial state budget plans, there turns out to be a surprise big spender.
It’s Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state’s rookie chief executive.
DeSantis is backing a $91.3 billion budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year, which begins July 1. That’s roughly $1 billion higher than the Senate’s $90.3 billion spending plan and about $1.4 billion more than the House’s $89.9 billion proposal.
In all cases, that’s a ton of money for average Floridians who may not follow or understand the making of a state budget that distributes money for public schools, the environment, roads, health care and other big-ticket items.
When lawmakers come to Tallahassee for the legislative session, the state budget is the most important thing they have to do.
Here’s how the proposed budget will become reality this year:
-The House and Senate bills will be up for a vote in the coming week in each chamber’s budget committee.
-The next week, the spending plans move to the Senate and House floors for approval.
-Once that happens, lawmakers will begin negotiating the differences in the bills.
-The final budget bill will likely be approved on May 3, the final scheduled day of the 2019 Legislature.
-Then, the governor has to approve the state budget, and can veto portions, or the whole thing.
As for the governor’s recommendations, DeSantis’ fiscal exuberance may seem somewhat out of line with his history as a member of the congressional Freedom Caucus, the most conservative faction of the U.S. House of Representatives.
But actually DeSantis’ financial philosophy is pretty much in sync with the Republican legislative leaders. They oppose tax hikes. They like tax cuts. They want the state to have a healthy reserve fund for emergencies. And they are reluctant to borrow money.
Nonetheless those budget goals have to be filtered through the reality of meeting the needs of the nation’s third-largest state, with a growing population of more than 21 million residents.
The spending plans all reflect attempts to accommodate issues such as teacher shortage, water pollution, hurricane damage, crowded roads and an aging population.
DeSantis already seems likely to score a major legislative victory on his call for dealing with water pollution and the restoration of the Everglades.
Both the House and Senate budgets generally match the governor’s request for more than $600 million to address issues such as the outbreak of red tide and toxic algae, the protection of natural springs and septic tank runoff.
The Senate has the most robust education spending plan. It would boost public school funding by $1.1 billion in the new academic year, for an increase of $350 per student. DeSantis asked for a $224 per-student increase, while the House is backing a $168 increase.
All three budget plans offer versions of a $29 billion-plus Medicaid program, which provides health care funding for 3.9 million Floridians who are poor, sick or disabled.
Despite the spending, there are many areas of the state budget that are likely to be hard-pressed in the coming year.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican who oversees the Senate budget subcommittee on prisons and justice programs, said the corrections budget remains on an “unsustainable” path.
With funding increases aimed at meeting mandated health care and mental health needs of the prisoners, Brandes said there is no new funding for critical priorities such as trying to boost salaries for correctional officers in order to meet system-wide staff shortages.
He said prison wardens have outlined $300 million in maintenance needs over the next five years, with some facilities dating back to the early 20th Century. But he said the Senate budget plan contains “a grand total of $4 million” for that issue.