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Ron DeSantis proposes record $91.3 billion budget, more spending on students

DeSantis budget debuts in a state where its Panhandle was ravaged by a hurricane, school districts say they need help to comply with new security measures, and infrastructure needs abound.
TAILYR IRVINE | Times Ron DeSantis announces plans to invest in Florida workforce programs at Tampa Bay Technical High School on Jan. 30, 2019 in Tampa, FL. DeSantis says he wants to take Florida from 24th in the nation to first in workforce preparation.
Published Feb. 1
Updated Feb. 1

Gov. Ron DeSantis is proposing a boost in per-student spending, an overhaul in how the state rewards teachers, improvements to the state’s aging transportation network and more money to save the Everglades in a record budget proposal announced Friday.

DeSantis' $91.3 billion proposed budget, dubbed “Bold Vision for a Brighter Future”, is the largest ever proposed, yet he said it was largely in line with last year’s budget.

“Florida needs to remain a fiscally conservative state,” DeSantis said. “This is a budget that keeps in line with Florida being a low tax state.”

His budget represents a $2.6 billion increase over this year’s budget and nearly 800 new hires, a reflection, perhaps, of urgent needs throughout Florida, where a hurricane ravaged the Panhandle, school districts say they need help to comply with new security measures, and infrastructure needs abound.

Most of the new hires would go to the Department of Corrections, which would hire medical and security staff as required under the terms of a lawsuit settlement with the agency.

DeSantis said he would emphasize education, the environment and infrastructure, while also providing more than $335 million in tax relief through a combination of breaks on property and sales taxes.

On education, DeSantis said he would double the increase in last year’s per-student spending from this year’s budget. He also said he would overhaul the state’s “Best and Brightest” rewards program for teachers.

Currently, bonuses are tied to the SAT and other college entrance exams. Long criticized by teachers, DeSantis said he proposes $500 million to reward and recruit teachers that would ditch the testing requirement.

“Using college entrance test scores to qualify, that doesn’t make sense," DeSantis told reporters at a news conference. “You’re already in a professional setting. Teaching is as much about the heart as it is the head.”

He’s also proposing more than $9 billion for infrastructure. When asked if this was in coordination with Florida Senate plans to invest heavily in expanding and building toll roads throughout rural parts of the state, DeSantis said only that he was aware of those plans and was interested to know more.

RELATED COVERAGE: Galvano calls for extending Suncoast toll road to Georgia.

But he also stressed there were urgent transportation needs to be met in urban areas of the state.

“Our approach is relieving congestion in areas like Miami and Central Florida,” DeSantis said. “It will obviously require resources.”

He said Florida deserves more money back from the federal government because of the way national gas taxes are divvied up and redistributed. He said he’s spoken with Sen. Marco Rubio about federal legislation that would provide additional money on transportation.

DeSantis’ budget is largely a leftover of his predecessor — agencies had to submit their budgets in October, when Rick Scott was still governor.

And it’s just a guide. The Legislature ultimately decides what’s in it, although the governor can veto some items. Last year, Scott proposed a record $87.4 billion budget, but lawmakers ultimately passed a budget worth $88.7 billion.

But it reveals with more specificity than ever before where DeSantis' priorities lie, following a campaign last year in which he was criticized for releasing few details about he would govern the nation’s third-largest state.

And much like his first three weeks in office, DeSantis' proposals were praised by Republicans, Democrats, environmentalists and affordable housing advocates.

“I am encouraged to see the governor’s commitment to priorities Democrats have long-embraced, especially the clean-up of our water, and increased funding for public education,” Senate minority leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said in a statement.

But DeSantis’ budget exposed a possible rift in his own party. House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, seemed to imply that DeSantis' proposal was too high.

“The Constitution requires a balanced budget, but we have an additional responsibility to respect Florida’s taxpayers by spending each dollar wisely,” Oliva said in a statement. “To meet this goal, the House will craft a budget that reduces per capita spending.”

Here are some of the highlights from the governor’s proposed budget:

Hurricane recovery:

Close to $2 billion of the budget is expected to cover hurricane recovery, particularly damage remaining from Hurricane Michael and past storms like Irma, which hit in 2017.

The Division of Emergency Management in DeSantis' budget is expected to funnel $1.9 billion — $271 million from the state’s general revenue, the rest from federal funds — to communities to recover and mitigate damage from future storms. Some money from FEMA will also add $92 million for the emergency management division to fund state responses to disasters.

Education:

DeSantis is recommending an increase in per-student funding of $224, which is double the increase from last year. DeSantis told reporters he wants to increase teacher incentives, which would come out of that funding. Of that, $50 per student is in flexible spending money for the districts — last year, that same category was just 47 cents per student, which outraged school superintendents.

For the Guardian program -- the controversial idea to arm some school staff -- DeSantis is rolling over the $57 million that hasn’t yet been spent from this year’s budget. DeSantis is also recommending nearly $100 million for additional security measures to school buildings and $10 million more for mental health programs.

The environment:

DeSantis, who has made the environment a top priority, announced his $625 million proposal for the environment earlier this week, representing a quarter of a $2.5 billion promise he made to spend on water quality over the next four years — a $1 billion increase from past spending.

About half the money — a record $360 million — would go to Everglades projects. That includes speeding up a 17,000-acre Everglades reservoir in farm fields south of Lake Okeechobee and removing almost 200,000 pounds of discharged phosphorus per year — a major source of nutrient pollution.

Another $150 million would target water quality improvements, such as septic-to-sewer conversions and upgrades to stormwater systems.

The budget also provides $25 million to treat the algal blooms and red tide plaguing the state’s water supply.

Opioids:

DeSantis wants to spend $84.6 million on easing the epidemic that’s killing 17 Floridians a day. Most of that, $49 million, is federal money. It would be a significant boost from this year’s budget, which devoted just $53 million to opioids.

Healthcare:

The behemoth healthcare budget, which usually suggests proposed cuts, emerged largely untouched from the baseline state economists had proposed. The budget does account for a roughly $100 million cut triggered by shortening the Medicaid retroactive eligibility period, though the Legislature would have to reapprove that policy change for it to continue into the next fiscal year.

But the lack of changes could be because the Agency for Health Care Administration’s newly-tapped leader, Mary Mayhew, has yet to brief budget officials on her plans for the agency.

DeSantis also has yet to name the state’s new surgeon general, who is tasked with leading the Department of Health.

Affordable housing:

For the first time in over a decade, DeSantis would not sweep the state’s affordable housing trust fund. Instead, he would devote the estimated $338 million toward providing low-interest loans for developers of affordable housing and building affordable housing for low- and middle-income families.

Elections security:

DeSantis wants to spend $12.2 million for election oversight, with a focus on cybersecurity. He would hire five cybersecurity experts and give a total of $3 million to help elections supervisors improve their systems.

What’s not in the budget:

The vast majority of state workers will not see pay raises this year, with two notable exceptions: state hotel and restaurant inspectors and employees at the Division of Emergency Management, where officials have complained that low pay is leading to high employee turnover.

DeSantis has also not included any cuts to higher education funding, even though House leaders appear to be considering them. The governor instead is advocating for an additional $90 million in performance funding for universities and said he wants to prevent tuition increases for students.

Although a strong economy is leaving lawmakers with an estimated $1 billion to spend at their discretion, DeSantis’ budget comes amid looming concerns about the state’s financial future.

The Legislature’s chief economist has been warning for months that the nation, and Florida, should brace for a likely recession after a decade of economic growth. DeSantis' budget would include $5.2 billion in reserves.

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