Ron DeSantis proposes Florida budget bigger than last year, defying pandemic

He proposed a $96.6 billion budget for the next fiscal year, billions more than the year before.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a COVID-19 testing site, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, outside Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. First responders and people over 65 years-old began receiving the COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday during a trial run of the site which will open to seniors at a later date.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a COVID-19 testing site, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, outside Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. First responders and people over 65 years-old began receiving the COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday during a trial run of the site which will open to seniors at a later date. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Jan. 28, 2021|Updated Jan. 28, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed a rosier-than-expected state budget for the next fiscal year on Thursday that avoids laying off scores of employees or dipping into state reserves.

His proposed $96.6 billion budget is $4.3 billion more than the budget Florida lawmakers passed last year, a surprising increase given the historic job losses and business closures from the coronavirus pandemic.

The growth in the size and scope of state government was made possible by the infusion of billions of federal cash into education, health care, vaccinations and testing — and better-than-expected state tax revenue.

“We were staring down the barrel of an unprecedented economic collapse,” DeSantis said during a news conference Thursday. “Most would have predicted that Florida would have done worse, indeed far worse, than the national average.”

Instead, DeSantis’ budget maintains, and in several cases exceeds, last year’s funding in key areas, including education and the environment:

  • It would not raise tuition at colleges and universities, nor does it account for a measure being debated in the Legislature to collect online sales taxes from all retailers.
  • It would preserve more than $700 million for planning and designing more than 300 miles of controversial new toll roads over the next five years.
  • It would keep $423 million in affordable housing money instead of spending it on other projects, like in years past.
  • It would triple the amount the state is spending on “election oversight activities,” to $16.7 million.
  • Spending on mental health, a priority of the first lady, would triple, to nearly $54 million, and money for opioid abuse programs would also triple, to $178 million.

“There’s going to be mental health fallout (from the pandemic), even under the best of circumstances, so we want to be ready for that,” DeSantis said.

Will lawmakers approve it?

DeSantis’ proposed budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year, which begins July 1, is advisory only. State lawmakers are the ones who craft the state budget when they meet for the 60-day legislative session in Tallahassee each year. This year’s legislative session begins March 2.

Still, the document represents DeSantis’ priorities, the purest distillation of where he wants to take the state in the coming year. His third budget will be greeted by an even more receptive Republican-controlled Legislature. The party tightened its grip on the House and Senate during November’s election.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said Thursday he had not read the proposed budget.

“We’re happy to take the governor’s recommendations and vet them through the committee process,” he said.

Two priorities DeSantis announced Thursday would require the consent of lawmakers to become reality.

One would create a “Resilient Florida” program that would provide $1 billion over four years to award grants to state and local governments for projects that address the effects of climate change: sea level rise, intensified storms and localized flooding.

The other initiative would spend $43.5 million to create a program to provide financial awards of $100 for students at schools with a large number of low-income students, otherwise known as Title I schools. The awards would be based on their performance, with a focus on literacy programs at those schools.

Although House and Senate legislative leaders have warned of the potential cuts to education spending, DeSantis wants an overall increase of the state’s K-12 system. He proposed $22.8 billion in the upcoming fiscal year, a $290 million increase over last year.

DeSantis’ wish list includes another $10 million for mental health services at schools and teacher salaries and proposed a $233 per-student increase in state and local funding that’s distributed based on enrollment. His office is projecting 48,263 fewer students enrolled in K-12 schools in the upcoming fiscal year, a drop of about 1.6 percent, according to the governor’s office calculations.

Florida school districts would also get $50 million over last year’s $500 million to raise teachers’ salaries.

“For those who are saying education is going to get whacked, we’re showing, no,” DeSantis said.

Federal aid was critical

Although the state is facing an estimated $2.75 billion revenue shortfall, tax collections in December were dramatically higher than expected. DeSantis said January’s collections were also up, a strong indication that the economy was recovering from the pandemic.

The last state budget was passed in March last year, as the economic effect of the pandemic was just starting to be realized. DeSantis vetoed $1 billion from that budget in June and asked state agencies to trim their budgets by 6 percent, which saved another $800 million, he said.

DeSantis used Thursday’s budget announcement as an opportunity to justify his handling of the pandemic and criticize “fear-mongering” by “experts,” whose recommendations he frequently defied over the last year. Although he imposed a 30-day lockdown early in the pandemic, he said “lockdowns don’t work” and the state won’t be closing businesses again.

“The fact is, we’re in better shape because we made decisions that benefitted the state,” he said. “And I think other areas have done things that have really, really destroyed their societies, their economies. Maybe they’ll come back, but I think it’s going to be a lot easier for Florida.”

DeSantis also credited $4.5 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed by Congress in March that helped during a dramatic shortfall in tax revenue. State economists have also said that about $17 billion in federal unemployment payments made to jobless Floridians helped the economy stay afloat, although it went unmentioned by DeSantis on Thursday.

“They were one of the reasons why we had all of the budget fallout,” DeSantis said of the federal government. “I feel they have a responsibility to help the states weather through it.”

The federal government also helped the state withstand a nearly $3 billion increase from rising enrollment in Medicaid, the shared state and federal program that consumes about a third of the state’s budget and provides health care to an estimated 4.6 million Floridians.

The CARES Act allowed the state to pull down hundreds of millions more federal dollars to offset the cost, DeSantis said.

The state will also receive an enormous cash infusion to pay for a ramped up vaccination program, which will be funded entirely by the federal government from Jan. 21 through the end of September.

The vaccination-related funding will be in addition to the $1.2 billion the state has already received from the federal government for testing and just under $200 million for vaccinations, the governor’s budget staff told reporters.

No layoffs, but few raises

The governor’s budget does not include an across-the-board pay increase for state workers except for an increase for some tenured corrections officers and for lawyers working for for the Department of Environmental Protection.

Under the governor’s plan, the Florida Department of Corrections would be the state agency to get the biggest increase in the number of new hires.

DeSantis wants the agency to spend $26.1 million to hire 330 full-time corrections officers so it can move forward with plans to shift their work days from 12-hour to eight-hour work shifts at several institutions.

Unions representing prison employees have fought the shift-hour modifications since 2018, arguing the state is required to negotiate before any changes are made to workers’ hours. Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, however, has argued the shift change is needed to address worker fatigue and vacancies.

“Corrections needs to be addressed, and General Inch has asked for some of these things,” DeSantis said. “Obviously, ideally, I would like to not have to do it, but I think that it’s the right thing to do.”

DeSantis’ budget also does not include any additional money for repairing the state’s failed unemployment website, CONNECT, which broke down down during the pandemic, making it difficult for jobless workers to get their insurance claims. Governor’s office staff said they were still waiting to determine whether the site needs to be replaced completely or simply upgraded.

DeSantis’ budget also does not reflect any policy shift in the way they handle employees working from home. Although businesses have been saving money by allowing remote work, many state agencies are requiring employees to work in an office.

The governor’s budget leaves 6.8 percent of the total budget in reserves, an approach his staff said was designed to provide a cushion in the event that general revenues drop because the nation remains in the throes of the pandemic.

However, DeSantis said he was confident that revenues would return to their normal levels in the next budget year, a level of optimism not shared by many Republican legislators.

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.