With budgets drafted, it’s crunch time for Florida lawmakers
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida lawmakers in the House and Senate passed their respective spending plans Thursday, with about a month left in this year's legislative session to reconcile a $1.4 billion gap in policy and funding priorities over state employee pay raises, the environment, teacher salaries and other programs.
The House adopted a $91.4 billion version that was slightly less than the spending proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Meanwhile, the Senate proposed a budget totaling $92.8 billion.
In the coming weeks, negotiators from both chambers will head into budget conferences — with scalpels or machetes — to come up with a budget compromise that lawmakers will send to the governor for consideration.
Major parts of the budget represented rare early agreement between Democrats and Republicans, particularly in the arena of pay for teachers and state employees.
"If you all had told me a year ago today that we would be talking about a substantial pay raise for state employees and teachers, I would not have believed you. But we have come a long way," said Sen. Bill Montford, a Democrat. “If you look at this budget, I believe it's a good day for Florida.”
Both plans include millions of dollars requested by the governor to raise the minimum salaries of the state's lowest paid public school teachers, with the House proposing $650 million for the raises — more than the governor's $603 million request to raise the minimum starting pay for teachers to $47,500 a year.
The Senate proposed $500 million.
But both chambers declined to fund the $300 million the governor has asked for teacher bonuses — which has come under fire by the teachers union. The union has said it would rather see the money used for general raises.
Meanwhile, both chambers signaled sympathy for state workers, who have sought raises but have been at an impasse with the state since December.
“We were optimistic when we saw both budgets,” said Jacqui Carmona, the political director for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.
Although neither chamber appeared willing to give state workers the 5% raises requested by their union, the Senate included in its budget 3% across-the-board raises to road crews, janitors, DMV clerks and office workers who answer the phones and work the counters at state agencies.
In its budget version, the House included $1,800 salary increases to state employees making less than $50,000 annually.
AFSCME, which represents about 50,000 state employees, said it favored the Senate proposal but was heartened by the spending the House approved.
Raises for state workers did not factor as a priority when DeSantis unveiled his budget proposal last fall.
However, DeSantis has given the environment — particularly Everglades restoration — a prominent place on his agenda. Both chambers are giving more than $625 million for the Everglades, water quality and to address algal blooms that have tainted lakes, waterways and the Florida coast.
Environmentalists and some Democrats, however, have taken issue with the governor and the Republican-led Legislature for not addressing the root causes of climate change. They sought more funding for initiatives to combat greenhouse gases and to more strongly support sources of renewable energy.
Some Democrats also took issue with the amount of money devoted to Florida Forever, the state's land preservation program.
The program has historically gotten about $300 million in annual funding. In recent years, however, Florida Forever has received much less. In fact, the House set aside $20 million — far below the $100 million the governor has requested.
“Of course, I know my colleagues and I would like to see more funding toward Florida Forever, and will continue to advocate for that, but we cannot negate the impact of more water projects being paid for and this body prioritizing that,” Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani said.
The Senate, meanwhile, would grant $125 million for Florida Forever.
AP reporter Brendan Farrington contributed to this report.
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