TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a flurry of decisions, top Republicans edged closer Sunday night to reaching a final deal on a state budget for the upcoming year.
Budget writers in the House and Senate agreed to spend $12.4 billion on the Florida Education Finance Program, the major part of the budget for public schools. The budget next fiscal year will include a $248 increase per student -- about a 3.5% increase -- Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley said after a Sunday-night meeting.
“We took a balanced approach with our traditional public schools and our charter schools, and I think it is a great year for public education,” Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said.
The House and Senate agreed on a slightly higher overall amount for the so-called FEFP than Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request for $12.3 billion. But legislative budget writers decided to set aside $233 million for the controversial Best and Brightest teacher-bonus program, which they said was “tremendous” but still falls about $189 million short of what the governor sought.
“We are hoping the governor recognizes that he has had a lot of wins in this budget,” House Appropriations Chairman Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island, said when asked about not meeting the governor’s request for the Best and Brightest program.
The Florida Department of Education ranks Florida as the 41st lowest in the nation in education spending per student.
Lori Hershey, chairwoman of the Duval County School Board, was happy to see any additional money flowing to public schools.
"Any increase in per-student funding from the state will be beneficial for students," Hershey said. "It is too early to know if the state will direct how those dollars have to be spent. However, improving per-student funding will allow districts to direct more dollars to the classroom.”
The deals announced Sunday night brought the House and Senate closer to meeting a Tuesday deadline to wrap up what is expected to be a roughly $90 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Lawmakers still must reach final agreement on funding for health care, the environment and higher education, as well as a few issues on criminal justice.
Budget writers agreed to put $750,000 into the state’s controversial clemency process. Saying lawmakers were “disappointed” in how former Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet handled clemency cases in recent years, Bradley said they wanted to set aside that amount because they are “encouraged” by the new Cabinet.
“We were very encouraged by the new Cabinet and their probably more open-minded approach to considering these types of (clemency) petitions, and they need money to review people's backgrounds and records and make informed decisions on these very important matters,” Bradley said.
Legislators also agreed to include an additional $5 million in the criminal justice budget for naltrexone, a type of medication used to treat people with alcohol or opioid addictions.
Lawmakers consider scores of issues annually, but they are required by law to pass just one bill: the budget. It’s also the only bill that must be printed and available for review for 72 hours before passage. That means the budget must be finalized and available no later than Tuesday for this year’s legislative session to end on time Friday.
Education and health care are the largest parts of the budget. In health care, lawmakers agreed to earmark an additional $15.5 million toward nursing home rates to increase what the facilities are paid to care for elderly and disabled people in the Medicaid program.
Initially, neither chamber proposed funding to bump the rates. AARP Florida and nursing-home industry groups called attention to the issue.
“We’re happy the Legislature did recognize that there’s a need for additional funding,” said Florida Health Care Association lobbyist Bob Asztalos.
The chambers have not agreed, though, on the amount of spending that should be targeted for people with disabilities. The Senate wants to direct $37.8 million for pay raises for employees of residential homes. Initially, the House’s budget had no funding for the increase. The House has offered to go to half of the Senate’s proposed increase, or $18.9 million.
The Senate did not agree to the offer.
Also, the chambers have not agreed on whether the state should move toward scrapping what is known as the iBudget system used by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities and place people with developmental disabilities in Medicaid managed-care plans.
Bradley downplayed the differences in health and human services.
“There’s not a lot of disagreement in that area,” he said. “We’ve come to an agreement on nursing homes, we’ve come to an agreement that there will be no overall cuts to hospitals.”
Bradley added, “We’re going to get there.”
The budget chiefs also agreed to a request from Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz to better prepare the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee for future disasters by adding staff and planning to modernize the facility.
The issues settled Sunday included $1.52 million to cover 20 new hires, with at least seven directed to provide technical assistance to local governments.
Moskowitz will also get $1 million -- $500,000 less than initially proposed -- to plan a redesign of the center.
Another $1.8 million will go toward helping nine fiscally constrained counties -- generally poor rural counties -- where emergency operations centers failed to meet minimum hurricane safety criteria.