$91.1 billion: Florida lawmakers consider the budget

The Florida Senate was in session on Tuesday during the last week of the sixty day session. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers signed off on a $91.1 billion state budget late Tuesday, the first budget of the Gov. Ron DeSantis era.

And although it falls about $200 million less than what DeSantis asked for, it’s $2.4 billion more than this year’s current budget.

And DeSantis still got much of what he wanted on key issues, including on environmental spending.

But not quite on education.

DeSantis had originally proposed a $422 million increase to the state’s teacher bonus program, called “Best and Brightest.” The Legislature’s total amount for this year fell far short at around $285 million, but the governor told reporters Wednesday that he’s not finished talking about the issue of teacher pay.

“That’s the Legislative process,” he said of the shortfall, adding that he was pleased with extra funding to districts that can be used for salaries. “We’re in the bottom third (for teacher pay), we’ve got to do better than that as a state. … This is one down payment but I think we’re going to be dealing with this issue again.”

The final per-student increase for the 2019-2020 school year will be $243, a significant bump from last year’s $101. Within that figure is a $75 per-pupil increase in the pot of flexible district spending money, used for the day-to-day costs of operating schools, everything from salaries for employees to electric bills.

Last year, that same category, called the “base student allocation,” saw an increase of only 47 cents, sparking outrage among school superintendents who demanded the Legislature reconvene and add more funding.

This year, the reaction was warmer.

Pinellas County schools superintendent Mike Grego, who was a vocal critic of last year’s budget, said he is “very much more excited about the budget this year than last.”

“It’s obviously moving in the right direction,” said Grego, vice president of the state superintendents association. He added that this increase to the base student allocation could help the district cover retirement costs, electric bills and health insurance benefits — all of which are rising.

Another top-line figure is what the state will spend on mental health services in schools. Last year, after the Parkland shooting, lawmakers pumped new money in the per-student funding that would help schools better fund counselors, school psychologists and social workers. The state will increase that category by $5.8 million — a far cry from the Senate’s proposed $31 million increase. The House, however, had originally proposed no increase in mental health funding.

When it comes to the maintenance of school buildings, only charter schools will receive state money for that this year — at $158 million. Public district schools, universities and colleges won’t receive any money for their building maintenance from the state.

Rep. Travis Cummings, R-Orange Park, the House’s budget chief, said that decision was made because traditional public schools can rely on locally raised property taxes for building costs, while charters cannot.

However, a bill that passed the Florida House may change that, as money collected through local referendums that raise local property taxes would be required to be shared with charter schools. It’s still unclear whether the Senate will adopt that bill language.

The budget chairs also set aside $250,000 for the Department of Education for “litigation expenses.” Cummings confirmed that is for current as well as potential future lawsuits over the Legislature’s “bold” education laws. The House on Tuesday passed a bill that creates a new school voucher, which is similar to a previously created program struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2006.

The base budget for universities’ operations was cut by $35 million this year — the culmination of threats repeated throughout session by the Florida House to trim what they saw as fat in the way universities are funded. The House took a skeptical approach to higher education budgets this year after it was discovered that the University of Central Florida misused funds meant for general operations and instead spent it on building construction.

Some universities, however, were dealt a softer blow thanks to last-minute, recurring funding placed in the final iteration of the budget offers. Florida International University received $15 million, while the University of South Florida — St. Petersburg received $3.5 million. USF also received $12.4 million toward the completion of its downtown college of medicine — $2.3 million short of what the university requested. That new Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Health Institute is scheduled to open in December.

The budget includes about $682 million for environmental needs, such as Everglades restoration and protection of Florida’s many freshwater springs, which was one of DeSantis’ campaign promises.

The budget proposes spending $33 million to buy and preserve land under the Florida Forever program — far less than the $100 million DeSantis wanted and what lawmakers spent last year.

And they’re spending about $31 million on state parks. DeSantis asked for $50 million this year, as state parks in the Florida Panhandle took a sharp hit in Hurricane Michael and require extensive restoration of trees and facilities.

Senate Budget Chair Rob Bradley said the $682 million environmental spending exceeds DeSantis’ $625 million proposal, and that lawmakers were proud of the large number. The money includes $322.6 million for Lake Okeechobee restoration and $100 million for Florida springs.

He justified the smaller slice in the Florida Forever program by pointing to more than $100 million already available to the program that hasn’t been spent.

“They aren’t even close to spending all that money yet,” the Fleming Island Republican said. “We’re not going to put things in the budget just for show.”

Two other DeSantis priorities took hits.

Visit Florida survived for another year, but with a big cut. House Speaker José Oliva wanted to axe the state’s tourism arm, but he acquiesced, and it will live for one more year on a $50 million budget — $26 million less than what DeSantis wanted.

And affordable housing, one of the most critical issues facing the state’s major metro areas, is getting more money than usual, but still less than what advocates want. Lawmakers assigned about $200 million to provide low-interest loans to developers of affordable housing and build affordable homes for low- and middle-income families.

Most of that money, however, is going to Panhandle areas devastated by Hurricane Michael. The rest, about $85 million, is going to areas around the state. The total is double what the state spent last year on affordable housing, but it falls far short of what DeSantis wanted: $338 million.

Although Hurricane Michael spending dominated much of the talk about the budget this session, the total dollars allocated for the Panhandle area weren’t available Wednesday.

Lawmakers also — uncharacteristically — moved quickly to button up a behemoth multi-billion health care budget, which has typically held up negotiations until the final stage in past years.

Though the Senate had proposed redistributing a $318 million “automatic rate enhancements” fund that supplements existing Medicaid reimbursements to 28 of the state’s hospitals with the highest Medicaid caseloads, both chambers agreed to trim just $9.5 million from that fund this year. Bradley said Tuesday night that the 3 percent cut to that fund signaled a commitment from both chambers to eventually phase out that fund entirely.

The change means some of the state’s largest “safety-net” hospitals will lose funds, though not nearly as much as they might have lost initially under the House or Senate plan.

Jackson Health in Miami-Dade is projected to lose about $1.5 million, while Tampa General might lose about $268,000, according to an analysis done by the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida. Nicklaus Children’s Hospital would lose a little under $70,000, while All Children’s in St. Petersburg might actually gain about $94,000.

The chambers also agreed to extend for another year a policy that shortens how long patients can have Medicaid retroactively cover their hospital bills before the date of their application. The Legislature had agreed last year to trim that period from three calendar months to one, to save the state about $100 million.

But advocates had pilloried the change when it was made, saying it would disproportionately hurt seniors and people with disabilities. Though the House had initially moved to make that change permanent through what is known as a “conforming” bill, the Senate prevailed in making that change for just the next fiscal year, through annual language tied to the budget. The Senate and House also agreed to direct state officials to collect data about how the policy affects patients.

One of the final items settled by lawmakers was language that might require the state’s Agency for Persons with Disabilities to restructure its Medicaid waiver, in a move that is likely to shift its beneficiaries to privatized managed care. Under the agreed language, the agency would need to revise its federal waiver with the state Agency for Health Care Administration if it draws a deficit at the end of June, but the revision would be at a future, unspecified date with legislative approval.

Here are some other budget highlights:

• Lawmakers added $750,000 to the Commission on Offender Review’s budget to help process clemency cases and handle the rush of applications expected from former felons applying to vote under Amendment 4.

• They approved 25 new positions for about $1 million in the Department of Agriculture to process concealed weapon background checks. That’s a victory for the department’s new commissioner, Nikki Fried, who has said the program under former chief Adam Putnam had been mismanaged.

• Both chambers were planning on diverting $45 million next year to a massive toll road project that’s a priority of Senate President Bill Galvano.

• Despite recent confirmation that Russians hackers penetrated Volusia County’s voter rolls in 2016, lawmakers did not increase the $2.8 million in cybersecurity money. The money goes to elections supervisors to prepare for the 2020 election.

The Senate president’s “sprinkle list,” a list of special projects the leaders of both chambers award each year, includes $500,000 for Lauren’s Kids. The nonprofit, which has had legislative support for years, is led by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation.

The House speaker’s “sprinkle list” includes more than $135 million in projects, including more than $61 million in recurring money for colleges and universities.

Once the budget is printed, lawmakers must have at least 72 hours to review it. That means lawmakers must meet Saturday, blowing past their Friday deadline, to pass the budget.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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Dwayne Bradford