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Florida to fund affordable housing, teacher raise negotiations continue

Early budget talks yielded some news on Visit Florida, too.

TALLAHASSEE — Florida will set aside at least $500 million for teacher raises in the upcoming budget year, according the budget talks held over the weekend. That will help achieve the goal of raising a statewide minimum teacher salary of $47,500 as Gov. Ron DeSantis had asked.

It originally had appeared that $500 million would be the final number, after the House came down to meet that figure, which the Senate had proposed. But on Sunday, the Senate surprisingly upped their offer to $600 million, showing that this key piece of the state budget is not yet settled. DeSantis had requested $600 million.

The Legislature also put the nail in the coffin on teacher bonuses, despite DeSantis’ request for a new bonus program, saying they had learned from the controversies of the past.

“For the last several years we’ve tried to reward (teachers) through bonuses and the message we’ve gotten back is, ‘Thanks but no thanks, we want a raise,’” said Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, who chairs the House’s education budgeting committee.

The details of who will qualify to receive the raise, though, are still being worked out between the two chambers. Both chambers have said K-12 classroom teachers will be included, but it’s still an open question whether prekindergarten teachers, librarians and other instructional personnel will get bigger paychecks.

Lawmakers also said Saturday that they will fully fund its affordable housing programs and give a 3 percent raise to state employees. They will also fund Visit Florida, the state’s tourism arm, at $50 million for another year, they said.

The state has $370 million in the state’s affordable housing trust fund this year, and how it would be distributed had not yet been decided Saturday afternoon. House leaders were proposing assigning $30 million of it for affordable housing programs in hurricane-hit areas.

The rest of the money would be distributed to programs across the state, including a state program that offers low-interest loans to affordable housing developers.

For years, lawmakers each legislative session have taken the hundreds of millions of dollars assigned to affordable housing each year and spent it on other things. Meanwhile, the as housing prices have gone up, homes that are within reach for lower-income residents have grown scarce.

The news that lawmakers weren’t going to use the money for other purposes was so surprising that Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, jokingly asked the Republican committee chairman to repeat what he’d said.

“It may be abnormal for the Florida House, but even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then,” Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, replied.

Rep. Travis Cummings, R-Orange Park, said constituents and lawmakers from both parties have asked to use all the money in the state’s affordable housing trust fund to alleviate the state‘s affordable housing crunch.

“I think that’s a big win this session,” he said.

Visit Florida has been on the chopping block the last few years, and last year they cut its budget in half. House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, has wanted to defund Visit Florida the last two years, but Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, fought for it this year.

Galvano said the coronavirus and its threat to Florida’s tourism-dependent economy was another reason to keep funding the agency. The program has had bipartisan support in both chambers.

Lawmakers still have dozens of bills to consider, some politically vexing, but the budget stands as the biggest hurdle in the Legislature’s race to adjourn.

With the end of the session looming, lawmakers were under pressure to finalize a budget they can send to Gov. Ron DeSantis for his signature. The Florida Legislature was scheduled to adjourn by Friday, but key officials acknowledged that the work in hammering out a budget might extend beyond the 60 days they are usually accorded.

There was some urgency to some budget items, including a $25 million request from the governor to help the state respond to a new form of coronavirus that has killed thousands worldwide and has begun to strike fear in the United States and Florida.

Associated Press reporter Bobby Caina Calvan contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: This story was corrected to reflect updated information on how much the state is dedicating toward teacher raises.

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