House, Senate Budgets Set To Advance To Talks

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Tallahassee, FL -  Negotiations on a wide range of budget issues can begin soon as the House and Senate are poised Thursday to approve record spending proposals for next fiscal year.

With relatively little criticism on Wednesday, the House positioned its proposed $91.37 billion budget (HB 5001) for a final vote, while the Senate earlier in the day did the same with its $92.83 billion spending plan.

Both proposals top the $90.98 billion budget for the current fiscal year.

“We have a lot of challenges with explosive growth, a lot of challenges that come when you have to meet the needs of 21.8 million Floridians, and I think that this budget meets that challenge,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said.

House Appropriations Chairman Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island, called his chamber’s spending plan “the best budget that we could have imagined.”

After the plans are approved Thursday, House and Senate negotiators will square off in conference committees to work on a final budget to pass before the March 13 end of the legislative session. The 2020-2021 fiscal year will start July 1.

Republican leaders outlined the spending plans during House and Senate floor sessions Wednesday, with Democrats raising questions about issues ranging from environmental funding and affordable housing to state employee pay.

Rep. Kimberly Daniels, D-Jacksonville, asked about a House proposal to withhold nearly $20 million from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services until the agency complies with a directive to remove gas pump inspection stickers that feature pictures of Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide-elected Democrat.

“Do you really think it is important to put what is essentially a spat between entities over the consumers of the state?” Daniels asked.

The stickers with pictures of Fried have been a contentious issue for Republicans since they first went up a year ago. Also, the issue has been tied to a proposal to move of the Office of Energy from Fried’s department to the Department of Environmental Protection, under Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Lawmakers last year limited what could be shown on the stickers because of the Fried pictures.

“If the agency continues to comply with current law (on the stickers), this language contemplated in the budget would be unnecessary,” Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Chairwoman Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, said.

More broadly, the House and Senate negotiators will have to work out differences on big-ticket issues in the budget such as education and health care.

The chambers, for instance, disagree on how to fund hospitals. While the House’s budget would maintain hospital spending at current-year rates, the Senate wants to shift $57.3 that is targeted to hospitals that provide the most Medicaid services and direct a portion of it to increasing base Medicaid rates for all hospitals.

The Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida estimates the proposal would increase payments to hospitals in the HCA Healthcare chain by $7.7 million, more than any other hospital system in the state.

But Jackson Health System in Miami-Dade County, the state’s largest Medicaid provider, would lose $11.5 million under the proposal.

Meanwhile, the House has recommended in a budget-related bill (HB 5201) to make permanent a controversial policy that would eliminate a 90-day window for people to retroactively apply for Medicaid. The Senate would continue the policy for the next year but would not make it permanent.

The budget proposals seek to increase pay for state workers and elevate funding for the environment, but they remain apart in numerous areas, such as the use of affordable-housing dollars, spending on the Florida Forever land-preservation program and a House push to eliminate the tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida.

Tied to the budget, the Senate is set to approve a bill Thursday (SB 362) that would keep Visit Florida operating until Oct. 1, 2028. If such a reauthorization bill is not passed, the agency will be eliminated July 1.

“Without this bill, Visit Florida goes away on July 1 of this year and will not ever be the same,” said Senate bill sponsor Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater.

The House wants to eliminate funding for Visit Florida, which receives $50 million in state money this year.

House Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, noted the state cut Visit Florida’s funding from $76 million last year and the number of tourists continued to climb.

“There are a lot of arms within individual communities that market their individual areas,” Trumbull said. “I think that folks are still coming, Florida sells itself with low taxes, no income tax, beautiful beaches, things like that.”

The two chambers are will have to resolve difference over pay issues for state employees and teachers across the state.

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 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.

DeSantis also has made a priority of spending $625 million on Everglades restoration and other environmental projects --- a proposal that the House and Senate budgets would top. But they will have to bridge a major difference on Florida Forever, with the House wanting to spend $20 million and the Senate proposing $125 million.

Raschein called the House proposal “a meaningful amount.” The program got $33 million in the current year.

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.

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