‘Circumstances have changed': DeSantis approves slimmer $92.2 billion Florida budget

“We all have to recognize that none of us are going to get everything that we want,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
SCOTT KEELER  |   Times Gov. Ron Desantis, Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, and Florida Senate President Bill Galvano talked to members of the Florida Legislature during a luncheon in the Florida Capitol in January.
SCOTT KEELER | Times Gov. Ron Desantis, Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, and Florida Senate President Bill Galvano talked to members of the Florida Legislature during a luncheon in the Florida Capitol in January.
Published June 29, 2020|Updated June 29, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis announced more than $1 billion in vetoes to the state budget on Monday in an effort to blunt the state’s economic fallout from the coronavirus.

The cuts spared most of the governor’s largest priorities and brings the state budget to $92.2 billion. It also sets aside $6.3 billion in reserves to withstand expected shortfalls over the next fiscal year, which starts Wednesday.

“Everyone understands the circumstances have changed,” DeSantis said during a news conference in the Capitol on Monday. “I think we all have to recognize that none of us are going to get everything that we want.”

How the budget will look by the end of the year is another story. In all likelihood, the budget will be cut again, after lawmakers and the governor have a better idea of the virus’ effect on the state’s tourism-driven economy, analysts said.

DeSantis warned last week that the pending cuts would be “the veto equivalent of the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones,” referring to a bloody scene from the hit HBO show in which some of the main characters were betrayed and killed by their allies.

But in reality, he kept some of the biggest issues passed by lawmakers this session, including more than $1 billion in measures that had widespread bipartisan support:

  • $500 million for teacher raises
  • A 3 percent pay raise for all state employees, including himself and the three members of the Cabinet
  • Giving corrections officers another $500 to $2,500 depending on their experience
  • $100 million to buy and preserve land around the state

His vetoes instead focused on local spending projects and smaller-ticket items, including:

  • Millions of dollars in local wastewater and environmental projects
  • $135 million for schools that perform well in the annual A-F state grading system that former Gov. Jeb Bush established two decades ago
  • $28 million in hepatitis C treatment for prison inmates, which was required under a settlement agreement with the federal government
  • $20 million for a 2nd District Court of Appeal courthouse in St. Petersburg

The vetoes were smaller than many people were expecting, and Democratic lawmakers immediately raised concerns that the budget was not realistic. Florida’s budget is based on revenue forecasts made by state economists months ago, before the coronavirus took effect. Those economists are not scheduled to come out with new estimates until August.

Democratic lawmakers have been asking Republican leaders, who control the House and Senate, to reconvene in a special legislative session to revise the budget and address the crisis over the state’s unemployment system.

“I don’t see how they can make it all the way across the line for 12 months with this budget,” said state Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, who is in line to become co-minority leader in the House next year. “It’s not what I would describe as fiscally conservative, that’s for sure.”

Republicans have said they won’t meet again before November, when new leadership takes over the Legislature.

“I don’t see a scenario where we come back before November,‘' said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg who chairs the Senate budget subcommittee on criminal justice issues. “With the signing of the budget, we have the funds to make it to November. We’ll just come back in then and cut the rest of the year’s money.”

When lawmakers passed their version of the budget in March, they knew it could be drastically different by the time it took effect on July 1. The same week they passed the record $93.2 billion budget, the state saw a historic surge in unemployment claims as Floridians began to stay home to avoid COVID-19.

Sales taxes, the revenue lawmakers use to pay for schools, state agencies and other projects, have plummeted since March. State revenues are $1.45 billion below their pre-coronavirus estimates, state economists announced Friday. Moody’s Analytics predicts that Florida will have an $8 billion revenue shortfall.

DeSantis said he was plugging the holes by eliminating 203 vacant positions in state government, $20 million in the state job growth grant fund and not spending $1.5 billion in trust fund money, among other measures. He also expects to receive billions from the federal government in CARES Act money.

“These were not easy decisions, but at the end of the day, I think we threaded the needle by preserving some of the historic achievements that this session brought,” he said. “I think we’ll be able to weather the storm.”

Democratic lawmakers were deeply critical of several of the items DeSantis decided to veto.

Jenne noted DeSantis’ decision to veto $500,000 for the state’s Blind Babies Program, which helps parents with blind children, while preserving $543 million in refunds to the state’s largest corporations and $117 million toward controversial toll road projects.

“You could have cut a couple things and saved everything else,” he said. “He showed the state his cards.”

Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, criticized that charter schools get $167 million in capital improvement money while other schools get only $40 million.

Democrats have also raised questions about the constitutionality of allowing DeSantis to allocate money when only the Legislature is authorized to appropriate state funds, accusing legislative leaders of ceding budget and public health oversight authority to the governor.

State statute requires that anytime state economists determine the drop in revenues exceed 1.5% of the budget reserves in the general revenue fund, it triggers action: The governor can either make across the board cuts or call legislators into session to do it. What remains unknown is which approach the governor will take.

The federal government has begun helping Florida by steering money to help replace some of the vetoed programs. Last week, officials announced the state had received $240 million in federal CARES Act money to help families hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic pay rent and mortgages. Half of it, $120 million, will be assigned to counties to give to its residents for rental and homeowner assistance programs.

But much of the CARES Act money can’t be used to fill budget shortfalls, and Congressional Republicans, including Sen. Rick Scott, have resisted giving more money to the states. Sadaf Knight, CEO of Florida Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, criticized DeSantis for not doing more to advocate for more federal money. DeSantis is a former Congressman strongly allied with President Donald Trump.

“Our biggest concern is looking forward,” Knight said. “This is not the end of the story.”

Times staff writer Jeff Solochek contributed to this report.