TALLAHASSEE – In a midway marker of the two-month session, the House and Senate have approved separate state budget proposals − more similspanr thspann different.
Republican supermajorities in the two chambers aren’t about to get into a serious standoff, which could cloud Gov. Ron DeSspanntis’ soon-to-be-announced presidential campaign.
But, sure, conflicts remain.
Here’s a look at just some of what needs to be settled in the Legislature’s homestretch.
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A bumpy bottom line
It doesn’t mean much. But it’s notable that DeSantis, who as governor goes first with making a budget recommendation, weighed in with the biggest of the batch, proposing a $114.8 billion spending plspann.
The House is promoting a $113 billion plan, while the Senate would spend $113.7 billion.
“There’s something for everyone to like in this budget,” said House budget chief Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach.
The next few weeks will see how Leek’s sales pitch holds up. Democrats are grumbling that an analysis of the House budget shows that only 4% of spending is on Democratic projects, compared to 96% for those sought by Republicans.
But Democrats still went along in Tuesday’s 112-0 budget approval. The Senate backed its plan a day earlier, 39-0.
In a year where Florida’s ruling Republicans approved one of the biggest private school voucher expansions in the nation, it’s not surprising that school spending also has swollen.
But the House and Senate are taking vastly different approaches to budgeting school dollars. So comparing the two proposals involves some apples and oranges.
Making sense and settling the differences between the House and Senate approaches is going to be critical toward buttoning up the state budget by the Legislature’s scheduled May 7 finish.
Much of the difference stems from the House’s reinivention of the Florida Education Program (FEFP) the system created in 1973 to provide equalized funding and educational opportunities across the state, with allowances for geographic and economic differences.
The FEFP is filled with “categoricals,” guiding the distribution of dollars. The House this year eliminates a bunch, rolling money for safe schools, instructional material, classroom supplies and other specific spending into the overall funding base.
As a result, House school spending looks like it’s on steroids.
The House proposes, for example, a base student allocation increase of $761 – eyepopping, next to the $182 recommended by the Senate, which does not radically overhaul the FEFP.
The Senate also takes into account what could be a massive outflow of taxpayer dollars to parents sending their kids to private schools. The voucher expansion effectively eliminates family income restrictions – so any private school or home school parent could collect more than $8,500 in taxpayer cash for each child.
The Senate is setting aside $802 million for all those new voucher students. It’s also setting aside $350 million in reserves, just in case even that sizable level of spending falls short.
By contrast, House leaders say they’re not worried about the voucher expansion causing a financial crunch. It’s putting aside $361.7 million for voucher kids, and it’s keeping another $109.7 million in reserve.
Yes, just in case its calculation is off.
Rite of spring: Visit Florida, Enterprise Florida in trouble (again)
The fates of Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida often hang in the balance of a legislative session.
This year is no different.
House Republicans often fall under the sway of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ founded activist organization which ridicules using public dollars to enhance the private sector. AFP and the Kochs were central to killing off the state’s film incentives program seven years ago, when GOP lawmakers were sensitive to claims they were “picking winners and losers.”
House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, wants Enterprise Florida erased this year. The business recruting agency, formed in 1996, has been reduced in recent years and Renner says the $13 million it receives could be better used elsewhere in the budget.
Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, doesn’t appear fired up about keeping Enterprise Florida. But the Senate spending plan does keep it alive at $13 million for next year.
Still, in what looks like a bit of gamesmanship, the House is also putting Visit Florida on the hot seat.
The House proposes allowing Visit Florida to continue only if 62 county tourist development councils steer a portion of their locally-collected taxes to the state.
Otherwise, the House would wipe out the agency, which advocates say has been instrumental in luring tourists back to a battered state after the Great Recession, the COVID-19 pandemic and, last year’s Hurricane Ian.
While the House is ready to pull the plug, the Senate recommends $80 million for Visit Florida, and DeSantis wants $100 million.
Visit Florida, at the moment, appears to have more allies than Enterprise Florida. And it looks like the House may be positioning for budget negotiations with the Senate, where having two agencies on the chopping block may improve Renner’s case that at least Enterprise Florida should get the ax.
Green light for green dollars
Environmental spending often proves combative between House and Senate leaders. But that perennial clash has eased since Florida’s water woes have magnified and algal blooms plague coasts popular with tourists and home to many Republican voters.
DeSantis, to paraphrase Kermit the Frog, has found that it’s politically easy being green.
And this year, lawmakers look ready to put plenty of cash into the environment.
Florida Forever, the state’s land-buying program, is poised to draw $100 million from the House and $75 million from the Senate, with the House going so far as to make its set-aside recurring dollars, potentially ending what is often a year-to-year clash.
Funding for Everglades restoration tops $560 million in both sides. Piney Point cleanup looks bound to get $85 million, with the House and Senate allocating that amount for the latest installment of environmental repair needed after the Manatee County phosphate facility in 2021 dumped millions of gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay.
Freshwater springs, always threatened by Florida development, get $50 million for protection and restoration in the two chambers. The Indian River Lagoon would get $100 million from each side to combat algae blooms.
Resilient Florida, meant by Florida’s GOP rulers to fix and sometimes avoid the damage coastal communities face from rising seas, gets at least $300 million from both chambers.
After a year of powerful hurricanes, the Senate would spend $150 million on beach restoration, while the House tops that at $200 million.
Capitol Complex? It’s complicated
The idea from DeSantis’ Department of Management Services to expand the boundaries of the Florida Capitol Complex and create a Memorial Park across the street from the Old Capitol is drawing heat from members of both parties.
Jewish Democrats and Republicans are angered by plans to include a long-delayed Holocaust Memorial in the park – near, but not, at the Capitol.
Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, has called out DMS for promising that the Holocaust Memorial would be dedicated at the Capitol next year – even as the agency was working on plans to locate the memorial across the street, likely at a later date.
The budget-related legislation has been advancing. But the criticism it’s drawing indicates the Memorial Park still needs more work.
DeSantis’ State Guard expansion also is up in the air. The House puts $108 million for the governor’s plan to expand the supplemental law enforcement force under his command from 400 members to 1,500 people, with planes, boats and helicopters ready to use.
The Senate isn’t funding the DeSantis force. But stay tuned once House-Senate budget negotiations begin.
“Time will tell,” Renner said about upcoming budget talks.