Lawmakers ready for Sunday vote on budget


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida lawmakers are poised to end their annual session on Sunday by passing an $88.7 billion state budget that increases funding for school safety, mental health, environmental land-buying and college scholarships.

Both the House and Senate discussed the budget bill (HB 5001) on Friday, which was the last scheduled day of the 2018 session. But legislative leaders extended the session through Sunday, after running out of time to complete work on the budget before the 60-day session ended. Sunday’s vote on the final budget, which takes effect July 1, will largely be a formality.

Lawmakers came into the session expecting to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, an opioid epidemic ravaging the state, the Senate’s higher-education package and a House initiative on public schools.

But those plans changed on Feb. 14, when 14 students and three staff members died in a mass shooting at a Broward County high school.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had “a real impact” on the budget process.

“We responded aggressively,” Bradley said. “If we don’t protect our kids, what are we here for? That’s job one.”

The kindergarten-through-high-school system will be the primary beneficiary of a $400 million school-safety initiative that includes $69 million for mental health programs and a $162 million “safe schools” program to hire more law enforcement officers to provide security at schools.

The package (SB 7026), signed by Gov. Rick Scott on Friday, also includes a $99 million grant program for schools to improve the physical security of campuses.

The $21.1 billion public school budget provides an average $101.50 increase in per-student funding across the state, a 1.39 percent increase over the current amount. But a handful of large school districts, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Duval and Pinellas counties, will see less than a 1 percent increase in per-student funding.

House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said the school budget avoids a potential $376 million increase in local property taxes. It does that by rolling back the tax rate to account for increased values on homes and businesses. The budget, however, includes $107 million in local property taxes reflecting new construction.

Several House Democrats said Florida needs to do more for its public schools. And they questioned $150 million in maintenance and renovation funding for charter schools, compared to $50 million for traditional public schools.

“We’re always at the bottom,” Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, said about Florida’s ranking among states in per-student funding.

Republicans defended the increase in charter school funding as part of an agreement included in a separate education bill (HB 7055) that will let school districts keep their local property taxes for maintenance and construction rather than share it with charter schools.

House Democrats also criticized a reduction in a $300 million affordable housing fund. House Tourism and Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Clay Ingram, R-Pensacola, said $185 million was shifted out of the fund for other spending priorities, leaving $109 million for affordable housing.

There were fewer questions about more than $100 million spent on the Florida Forever program, which allows the state to purchase environmentally critical land.

Bradley, who was a major proponent of the initiative, said it represents the largest financial commitment to the program since the state budget was undermined by the last recession.

“I think the Florida Forever funding puts us back on the right track,” said Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg.

In health care, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, cited a $130 million increase in Medicaid funding for nursing home rates in the new budget. She said it also includes a $30 increase in the monthly allowance given to nursing home residents, providing them $135 for personal care items, like hair styling.

The budget includes 69 new investigators for the Department of Children and Families for child protective teams, which Flores said was a priority for the governor.

It also includes funding for staffing to reopen a veterans’ nursing home in Orlando and for a new veterans’ home in St. Lucie County.

Bradley also cited the permanent expansion of the Bright Futures scholarship program that will provide more financial aid to more than 90,000 students attending state universities and colleges. A $121 million increase in the program is included in a higher-education bill (SB 4) that is awaiting action by Scott.

Bradley urged bipartisan support for the spending plan.

“I ask that you not only vote yes but do so proudly because I think that this is a budget that has everyone in the chamber’s fingerprints on it,” he said.

House Minority Leader Janet Cruz said her caucus was not taking a position on the budget, with most Democrats saying Friday they remained undecided.

“I’m really vacillating. I’m not sure how I’m going to vote on this budget,” Cruz, D-Tampa, said.

Cruz said she is happy about many of the initiatives but would like to see higher funding for health care, mental health and affordable housing.

“Sometimes I worry about whether those who are financially disadvantaged count enough in this state,” she said.