House, Senate Have Work To Do On Budget

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Tallahassee, FL - With budget proposals that offer pay increases for state workers and elevate funding for the environment, House and Senate appropriations committees Wednesday unanimously backed record-setting spending proposals.

Support for the proposals came despite concerns about issues such as using affordable-housing dollars to cover other programs and shifting the state Office of Energy away from Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

The House Appropriations Committee vote came with a few technical changes to the House’s $91.37 billion proposal (PCB APC 20-01) and accompanying bills, while the Senate Appropriations Committee quickly approved 69 amendments that shifted spending within the Senate’s $92.83 billion proposal (SPB 2500).

“It is all transparent,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, after his committee meeting. “Everyone can see the amendments that are being considered.”

House Appropriations Chairman Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island, called the unanimous support from his committee “refreshing,” while he acknowledged comments from members of both parties about issues such as pay for corrections officers and teachers.

“I do think we have some work to do,” Cummings said. “Clearly there's some differences from the Senate budget, although there's a lot of similarities as well. And so, I feel we have some obvious work to do in conference (negotiations).”

The full House and Senate are now ready to vote on their budget proposals for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which starts July 1. After those votes, the chambers will need to hammer out differences before the scheduled March 13 end of the legislative session.

Among key issues during the negotiations will be the House’s desire to use affordable-housing money for other parts of the budget; a disagreement about how much money to spend on the Florida Forever land-preservation program; differences on pay raises for state employees; and a House push to eliminate the tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida.

The Senate committee approved a bill Wednesday (SB 362) that is intended to keep Visit Florida operating through Oct. 1, 2028. The House wants to close the agency, which receives $50 million in state money this year.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has made a top priority of setting a minimum salary of $47,500 for public-school teachers, a plan that would cost $602 million. He also wants to spend $300 million on a new bonus program for teachers and principals, with a focus on educators who work in schools in low-income areas.

The Senate wants to spend $500 million to raise teacher salaries, while the House is offering $650 million. Neither chamber has proposed money for bonuses.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, called the teacher-pay proposals “robust.” While Oliva couldn’t say the funding would resolve teacher shortages, he added the governor should be “very happy” about what is being proposed.

Bradley called the differences over teacher pay “manageable.”

“I've gotten nothing but positive vibes and feedback from everyone in the building about what everybody is doing on teacher compensation,” Bradley said.

Meanwhile, the Senate budget seeks a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise for all state employees, while the House would add $1,800 to the annual pay of state workers who earn less than $50,000 a year.

DeSantis also has focused heavily on funding for Everglades restoration and other environmental projects. DeSantis wants to spend $625 million on such projects, and the House and Senate budget proposals have both topped that amount.

But the legislative chambers disagree on the Florida Forever program.

Rep. Holly Raschein, a Key Largo Republican who chairs the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, called the House proposal to spend $20 million on Florida Forever “meaningful” but added she expects the amount to be revisited.

The Senate wants to spend $125 million on Florida Forever. The program got $33 million in the current year.

Several House Democrats also urged House Republican leaders to consider moving toward the Senate on affordable housing.

The Senate would fully fund affordable-housing programs at $387 million, while the House would spend $147 million and “sweep” other affordable-housing trust fund money to balance the rest of the budget.

The chambers also have significant differences about taking money out of other trust funds. While the Senate would sweep $107 million from trust funds, the House would divert $404.5 million.

In addition to money from the affordable-housing trust fund, the House targets $80 million from a Department of Environmental Protection trust fund and $60 million in trust funds from the Agency for Health Care Administration. The Senate proposes taking $65 million from the Department of Environmental trust fund and $15 million from the Agency for Health Care Administration.

In health-care and social-services programs, the House is proposing to spend more than $38.7 billion, while the Senate proposes spending $39.3 billion. Both chambers' proposals are an increase over current-year funding for health and social services, which is $37.6 billion.

Before Wednesday’s meetings, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried lambasted a House proposal that would shift the state Office of Energy from within the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to the Department of Environmental Protection, which is under DeSantis.

She also criticized House plans to withhold money from her department until plans are presented to remove gas-pump inspection stickers that feature her face.

“Republicans are threatened. (They) had near-complete power for almost two decades. Now a Democratic woman gets elected statewide and the old boys club cannot stand for it,” Fried told reporters.

The Office of Energy move is included in the budget and a separate bill (HB 5601), which was also approved Wednesday by the House Appropriations Committee. Addressing the issue about the stickers, Oliva said “government documents are not political advertisements.”

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