May 4, 2019
by Jim Turner
NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature quickly put the finishing touches on a record $91.1 billion spending plan Saturday, meeting numerous requests from freshman Gov. Ron DeSantis.
While declaring “great wins for conservatives,” along with environmental protections that should appeal to Democrats, the governor said he intends to use his line-item veto power but didn’t specify what spending he might target.
“It’s going to be under $91.1 billion when I get through with the budget, don’t worry about that,” DeSantis said during a traditional “sine die” ceremony in the Capitol’s fourth-floor rotunda after lawmakers ended the annual legislative session.
The Senate voted 38-0 to approve the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, and the House followed with a 106-2 vote. The only dissenters were Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, and Rep. Cindy Polo, D-Miramar.
The budget includes high-profile spending issues such as $680 million for the Everglades and other water projects; a $242-per-student increase in school funding; and $50 million to maintain for at least another year the state’s embattled tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida.
The package also would provide a little more than $220 million to help areas of the Panhandle hit last year by Hurricane Michael; $45 million for Senate President Bill Galvano’s priority to add or build toll roads; and $40 million to retain the Job Growth Grant Fund, an economic program created under former Gov. Rick Scott.
DeSantis will have a chance to veto parts of the budget when it formally reaches his desk.
As DeSantis prepares to review the budget, Galvano, R-Bradenton told the governor Saturday, “Just trust me. It’s all good.”
Galvano later told reporters, “I hope that he really studies and understands what is there and gets to the bottom of it as opposed to just making a statement in terms of a number to cut.”
Scott, now a U.S. senator, made $615 million cuts in 2011, his first year as governor. Last year, in his final year in the governor’s mansion, Scott removed just $64 million from the budget.
DeSantis implied that Galvano’s toll road priority, which is spelled out in a bill (SB 7068) that will soon go to the governor, will likely survive. But other spending could be on the chopping block.
“Obviously there’s certain things government shouldn’t be doing at any level. If that’s in there, that’s going to be a candidate,” DeSantis said. “There are some things that maybe government should do but should be local, and not state government.”
The spending plan includes $3.4 billion in reserves, but DeSantis indicated he would like to see a larger amount. Vetoes of spending could boost the reserves.
“The economy is great. I wish I could say we’re going to have 3.6 (percent) unemployment ad infinitum,” DeSantis said. “But I think we just need to prepare ourselves that the economy is cyclical. I hope it’s not next month, next year, three years from now. But eventually things are going to get tighter. We all have to recognize that.”
House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, said late Friday the session had included “extraordinary” collaboration between the Legislature and the executive branch, noting that DeSantis had served in Congress.
“There was a legitimate commitment on behalf of the governor to work with the Legislature, having been a legislator (in Congress),” Oliva said. “The president of the Senate and I are good friends, trust a great deal in one another.”
The budget also earmarks $10.2 billion in general-revenue funding for health care and other social service programs, with much of that state money drawing federal matching funds. In all, the health and human services budget totals $37.6 billion.
While the Legislature made deep cuts to hospital funding in recent years, the new budget does not include Medicaid reductions for hospitals. Lawmakers, however agreed to continue for another year eliminating Medicaid “retroactive” eligibility for elderly and disabled people. Pregnant women and children have been exempted from the policy and will continue to have a traditional three-month retroactive period to enroll in the Medicaid program when needing services.
The Legislature initially agreed last year to eliminate Medicaid retroactive eligibility, a move that saves about $100 million. They agreed to extend the policy for another year by including it in the new budget. The budget expires annually, which means lawmakers will have to address it again next year.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said people often focus on large-dollar or high-priority budget issues. But Bradley said one of the brightest spots in the budget is a change that could help adults with disabilities who want to work. The change would allow adults with disabilities to earn about $50,000 annually without losing access to Medicaid benefits that assist people with activities of daily living.
“It’s going to make a real difference in people’s lives,” Bradley said. “Many people in the state of Florida will be able to get better-paying jobs, make more money and get the benefits they deserve.”
The budget is the largest in state history, topping by 2.7 percent the $88.7 spending plan for the current year.
House Majority Leader Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, said the increase is “organic,” due to the state’s population growth and additional tourism.
Environmentalists, however, expressed disappointment in the session, in part because the budget includes $34.5 million for the Florida Forever land-preservation program — much less than the program has often received in the past..
“This year’s amount is a far cry from the $300 million this program received for decades. It is also well short of both last year’s $100 million appropriation and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ budget recommendation this year of $100 million,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of the Florida Conservation Voters. “To say we are upset would be an understatement.”
Legislative leaders have pointed to funds remaining from the current year’s allocation to Florida Forever, which wasn’t as much of a priority under Scott and the previous state Cabinet.
— News Service staff writer Christine Sexton and senior writer Dara Kam contributed to this report.