DeSantis unveils $96.6B budget with $2.6B more for pandemic response

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – While unveiling a record $96.6 billion proposed budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year, Gov. Ron DeSantis touted Florida’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effort to increase teacher pay.

DeSantis said he wants to put more funding toward both those areas in next year’s budget, which is $4.3 billion more than the current budget. DeSantis said more than half of that increase -- $2.6 billion -- is for costs related to the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response.

“There are not a lot of spending increases throughout the budget that are not pandemic driven,” DeSantis said.

The proposal was a departure from projections that the state could face a more than $2 billion budget shortfall because of the economic fallout of the pandemic. Legislative leaders have warned repeatedly that they expect to have to make budget cuts as they negotiate a spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

DeSantis’ proposal -- dubbed the “Florida Leads” budget -- is a starting point for the legislative deliberations, and it relies heavily on federal money that has flowed into the state to help deal with the pandemic. Also, it would bank on such things as increased property-tax revenues to boost education spending, long a controversial issue.

As recently as mid-January, House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, warned of looming budget cuts, including the possibility of education cuts. Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, also has raised the possibility of moves such as increasing university tuition -- something not included in DeSantis’ proposal.

“You know, we’re going to need to look very hard and diligently at how everything is funded, and whether or not it meets muster. … And we will be squeezing blood out of turnips, as they say in my neck of the woods,” Trumbull said this month.

House Minority Co-leader Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, described DeSantis’ budget proposal Thursday as a “wish list.” The annual legislative session starts March 2, but committees are scheduled next week to start reviewing the proposal.

“The governor’s proposed budget holds no sway, when it comes to when things are actually being done,” Jenne said. “Obviously, priorities will be prioritized for his benefit. But, in terms of the overall structure of things, it is really just political theater to make people feel like the economy is doing better than it actually is.”

Education

In his budget, the governor followed up on last year’s teacher pay increase with $550 million budgeted for teacher salaries, a $50 million increase over last year. He said the state will continue to raise the minimum salary for K-12 teacher to $47,500, as well as the salaries of other instructional personnel.

The total recommended budget for K-12 public schools is $22.8 billion with $12.9 billion in state funding for schools -- the highest amount ever, DeSantis said.

That puts spending per student at $8,019, a $233 increase per student.

In higher education, the governor is asking lawmakers to keep operating funds for Florida’s universities the same at $2.7 billion and reduce operating funds for state colleges by $100 million to $1.2 billion. The budget keeps tuition rates flat for college and university students

Environment

During a news conference at the Capitol, DeSantis said his proposal would also continue funneling money into environmental issues such as Everglades restoration and direct dollars to initiatives like helping address sea-level rise.

DeSantis recommended committing $625 million for environmental projects with $473 million for Everglades restoration, $50 million for Springs restoration, $145 million for targeted water quality improvements, $40 million for alternative water supply and $25 million to combat harmful algal blooms and red tide.

The budget also tackles the challenges of sea-level rise, intensified storm events and localized flooding by establishing the Resilient Florida program which will provide $1 billion over four years to provide grants to state and local government entities.

The budget recommendation also includes $50 million for the Florida Forever Program and $32 million for infrastructure improvements and resource management at state parks.

Other highlights in DeSantis’ budget include:

Economic Development

  • $50 million for the Job Growth Grant Fund
  • $5 million for Enterprise Florida
  • $50 million for VISIT FLORIDA’s marketing programs
  • $50 million for the Economic Development Transportation Fund

Health and Human Services

The state Department of Management Services would be required to “maintain and offer” the same preferred provider organization and health maintenance organization options currently available to state employees.

Also includes:

  • $32 million for Florida’s child welfare system
  • $31 million for mental and emotional health programs
  • $178 million to fight the opioid epidemic
  • $51 million for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities waiver program

Public Safety

  • $5 million for officer retention
  • $26.1 million to change corrections officers from a 12-hour shift to an 8.5-hour shift
  • $12.4 million to fund prevention programs for at-risk youth
  • $14.5 million to enhance Florida’s crime databases

Transportation and Infrastructure

  • $9.47 billion for the State Transportation Work Program
  • $423.3 million for workforce and affordable housing programs
  • $250 million to address affordable housing needs

Military Support

  • $2 million for the Florida Defense Support Task Force
  • $2 million for military base protection
  • $3.1 million to support Florida National Guardsmen seeking higher education degrees
  • $8.4 million to support scholarships for children and spouses of deceased or disabled veterans

Cybersecurity

  • $40 million to protect the State against cyber threats

Among the factors increasing the proposed budget’s bottom line is a surge of hundreds of thousands of people enrolling in the Medicaid program as they have lost jobs or need health-care coverage. Medicaid is expected to include about 4.59 million people during the upcoming year, with the increased enrollment reflected in higher costs for the program, which is jointly funded by the state and federal governments.

The budget places $6.6 billion in total reserves, which is more than 6% of the total budget to help cover unforeseen expenditures related to the pandemic and 2021 hurricane season.

The governor’s recommended budget also includes $65 million in tax relief for Florida families, including a $56 million 8-day Back-to-School Sales Tax Holiday and a $9 million 10-day Disaster Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.


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