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Florida lawmakers pass record $101.5 billion budget

Heading into 2021, lawmakers feared the worst. But sales tax revenues rebounded and Congress sent Florida billions in stimulus dollars, allowing lawmakers to go on a spending spree.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, left, and Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls smile as they speak with members of the media after the end of a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, left, and Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls smile as they speak with members of the media after the end of a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Apr. 30, 2021|Updated Apr. 30, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Eight months ago, state lawmakers were fretting about the state’s budget. With millions of Floridians out of work, sales tax revenues dried up and state agencies were facing deep cuts.

But in a dramatic turnaround, sales tax revenues rebounded and Congress sent Florida billions in stimulus dollars, allowing lawmakers to go on a spending spree this year.

State lawmakers on Friday signed off on a record $101.5 billion on the state budget that has left both Republicans and Democrats happy — mostly.

Flush with $10.2 billion American Rescue Plan funding from Congress, Republicans are using it to cross off longstanding issues and plug holes in the budget created by the pandemic.

Billions of dollars are being devoted to the environment, creating what House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, called “the greenest budget in Florida’s history.” That includes $100 million for the cleanup and closure of the Piney Point phosphate plant that threatened to flood hundreds of Manatee County homes in early April.

More than $750 million is going to maintenance and construction projects for schools, colleges and universities.

Lawmakers avoided cuts to hospital funding, and additional federal dollars allowed the state to pay for the 1 million Floridians who joined the state’s Medicaid rolls during the pandemic.

The budget also includes direct payments to many Floridians, requested by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Teachers, police, firefighters and paramedics can expect $1,000 bonuses. Many state employees will see raises, thanks to Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who pushed to increase the minimum wage in state government to $13 per hour.

“Thank you to our teachers, thank you to our principals,” DeSantis said after session ended Friday. “They may never have another opportunity to make the type of difference they did this year.”

In all, the budget was so appealing to both parties that it received a standing ovation in the House of Representatives after passing 117-1. In the Senate, the vote was unanimous.

“There’s enough good things in this budget to vote for it,” said Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-Tampa, who called it “excitingly responsible”

But this year’s budget isn’t all roses, some Democrats and advocates said.

Lawmakers agreed to giving some college students new tuition breaks, but insisted on cutting two long-standing college financial aid programs, including $600 textbook stipends for 80,000 Bright Futures recipients.

Lawmakers also chose to permanently halve the state’s share of affordable housing money, using the rest on flooding projects and wastewater programs. Instead of $423 million for affordable housing this year, the program is getting $209 million.

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“The cut in Sadowski Act funding will most definitely hurt Florida’s ability to build new housing, repair homes, and help families to move from a high-cost rental market into homeownership,” Jaimie Ross, president and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition, said in a statement.

Florida’s rescue plan

In August, the state’s financial situation looked bleak. With a sharp drop in sales tax revenue, which funds most of the state’s general revenue, lawmakers were looking at a $5.4 billion hit. In anticipation of deep cuts, Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered state agencies to withhold 6 percent of their budgets.

“The clouds were gathering on the horizon. We weren’t exactly sure what the future held,” DeSantis said Friday.

Instead, the budget for the next fiscal year is nearly $10 billion more than the one they passed last year — roughly the same amount as what Congress sent to state government.

Lawmakers are spending just $6.7 billion of the American Rescue Plan dollars this year, though. The rest is going into reserves, bringing the state’s reserves to the highest level in history at $6 billion.

Surrounded by lawmakers, Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
Surrounded by lawmakers, Florida Gov.Ron DeSantis speaks at the end of a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]

Of that, nearly half is going to two areas: $2 billion to the state’s transportation trust fund for road projects, and $1 billion to a new emergency response fund used by the governor.

Sprinkled in is $56 million to help the state’s unemployment agency resolve a backlog of claims issues. Another $30 million is going to grants for African-American cultural and historical projects.

And $125 million is going to one of Sprowls’ priorities: a proposed book distribution program to improve elementary school students’ reading levels.

A ‘golden opportunity’ for the environment

Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the federal money are Florida’s beaches, plants and animals.

Lawmakers are spending $300 million to acquire land for Florida’s Wildlife Corridor, $500 million to combat sea level rise and an equal amount converting septic tanks to sewers. Another $58 million would go to Everglades restoration and $25 million to remove derelict vessels.

“I think this is the golden opportunity for our friends in the environmental community,” said Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula. “It is a phenomenal budget as it relates to environmental policy and environmental funding.”

The amount of money going to the environment this year is “remarkable” considering the pandemic, said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters.

“We’re still way further behind than we really should be,” she said.

Money to find ‘missing’ students

A separate federal relief plan for education sent $6.8 billion to the state, which was placed in state reserves for the Florida Department of Education to plan ways to help schools safely stay open and support students who have experienced academic losses during the pandemic.

Lawmakers agreed to put an extra $46 million to help homeless children and youth and give them extra help in light of the pandemic. State education officials will use the money to identify those at-risk children and offer them access to in-person spring and summer learning programs.

At the start of session, lawmakers were concerned that nearly 88,000 students statewide had left the public school system during the pandemic. Some districts struggled to identify where those children had gone, while others said most students were not “missing” but rather had gone to a private school or moved out of the county.

The House’s budget chair, Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, said the federal dollars are meant to help students who fell through the cracks.

“Those dollars are going to be to locate and remediate those folks who are coming back in and make sure there is no significant loss in learning,” he said.

Medicaid for new mothers

The state’s health care budget swelled by more than $5 billion thanks to the million Floridians who signed up for Medicaid during the pandemic.

But Florida was able to cover these costs thanks to extra federal Medicaid dollars approved by Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

“It allowed us to completely ameliorate all of the cuts in health care,” Trumbull said.

The money also allowed lawmakers to extend the time new moms can be eligible for Medicaid, a priority of Sprowls that received bipartisan praise. Currently, new mothers are eligible for Medicaid for 60 days after they give birth. The new provision would extend that to one year.

Sprowls’ measure, the headline feature of the Legislature’s health care budget, is aimed at reducing racial health disparities for new mothers. (More than half of all births in Florida are covered by Medicaid.)

Initially, the Legislature planned to balance that $240 million maternal Medicaid extension with cuts to other Medicaid-funded institutions like hospitals and nursing homes.

Because of the extra federal Medicaid money, none of those cuts wound up in the budget.

Also not included in the budget: a provision to expand Medicaid in Florida under the Affordable Care Act.

Republican lawmakers did not consider expanding the program to offer health insurance to hundreds of thousands of uninsured Floridians despite a federal government offer to essentially cover the cost of the program over at least the next two years.

Republicans have argued it’s more important to give people good-paying jobs than to give them government-funded health insurance.

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