TALLAHASSEE — Flush with booming tax revenues and billions in federal cash, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday unveiled a proposed $99.7 billion budget for the state’s next fiscal year that includes $1,000 bonuses for teachers and police and millions to combat illegal immigration and election fraud.
Calling it the “Freedom First Budget” to echo DeSantis’ reelection slogan, his proposed budget includes nearly $1 billion for the environment and no tuition increases for state colleges and universities.
“Florida is clicking in on all cylinders when it comes to the economy,” DeSantis said during a morning news conference in Tallahassee. “This is a really strong picture of a state that’s performing very, very well.”
DeSantis said his proposals are meant to address the everyday problems Floridians are experiencing with inflation and other costs that he blames on the federal government. Several of the proposals rely on federal relief funding, however.
For example, he’s proposing using federal money to cut the state’s gas tax by $0.25 for five months starting in July, which would save motorists a few dollars when they fill up their tank. As of Thursday, the average price per gallon for gas in Florida was $3.28, five cents below the national average, according to AAA, the Auto Club Group. That price per gallon is about where it was a month ago and $1.13 higher than the same time last year, when demand dipped because of the pandemic.
DeSantis also wants to permanently eliminate the $25 fee to obtain a Florida identification card, an alternative for people who don’t have a driver’s license. (Local tax collector revenue would be unaffected.)
Another $40 million would establish a revolving loan program for homeownership, including help with down payments and closing costs for a new home, an attempt to relieve rising housing costs.
His proposed budget also includes millions for hot-button issues that DeSantis has been touting in recent months:
- $8 million would be spent on a new program to combat illegal immigration, including paying contractors to transport “unauthorized aliens” to other states. In September, DeSantis barred state executive agencies from cooperating with the federal government in transporting undocumented immigrants from the southern border into the state.
- $2.4 million and 16 new positions for police and investigators at two state agencies to ensure private employers are verifying that their employees are eligible to work in the U.S., which would bolster parts of an E-Verify law he promised supporters on the campaign trail.
- $5.7 million for a new Office of Election Crimes and Security with 52 positions, plus another $1.1 million for the Florida Elections commission to handle cases brought by the new office. DeSantis has been under pressure by some on the right to audit Florida’s 2020 election results. DeSantis, who lauded the state’s election system as a “model” for the nation, has so far declined calls for an audit.
- $900,000 and six positions at the Office of Statewide Prosecutor to prosecute, in part, “organized retail theft,” an issue that has been captured on viral videos in California but hasn’t been a serious issue in Florida recently.
DeSantis’ proposals for the 2022-23 state budget must be approved by state lawmakers when they meet in Tallahassee for the two-month session that begins in mid-January. The state government’s current budget was approved in June and came in at a record $100 billion.
Booming taxes, thanks (in part) to federal help
Democratic lawmakers responded to DeSantis’ proposed budget by saying that the governor should be thanking the U.S. Congress and President Joe Biden for this year’s budget.
“The reality is that we could not balance this budget or even give out tax breaks if it wasn’t for President Joe Biden,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said.
DeSantis’ proposed budget, and the state’s economy, have benefited from a quick rebound, attributed to DeSantis’ efforts to lift pandemic-related restrictions on businesses in Florida sooner than other states and by federal programs approved by President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.
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Florida’s tax revenues routinely exceed projections. In October, the state brought in $435.5 million more in general revenue than was expected in an August forecast. About 70 percent of that was from sales taxes.
State economists credited October revenues to the Advance Child Tax Credit payments, part of Congress’ recent stimulus package, along with Floridians dipping into their savings.
Florida also has at least $3.5 billion in unspent federal coronavirus relief dollars that it could use to subsidize DeSantis’ proposed cut to the gas tax, the bonuses to teachers and first responders and environmental projects. Florida is also expected to get billions for transportation projects from Congress’ recent infrastructure bill, but that’s not yet included in the proposed budget.
DeSantis has avoided crediting the Biden administration for funding his proposals. On Thursday, he blamed the federal government for not giving Florida enough of the money, citing one federal formula that was based on states’ unemployment rates.
“We got the short end of the stick compared to these other states,” DeSantis said Thursday.
He also blamed the federal government for contributing to Floridians’ problems. He cited the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium for driving up the cost of rent in the state — even though rent has been rising in Florida for years.
“The federal government helped drive a lot of the disruptions we saw,” he said.
Billions would be unspent
The governor’s recommended budget includes $15 billion in surplus reserves, more than the $9.5 billion in reserves in the current budget.
Florida’s rainy day funds, also known as budget stabilization funds, allow the state to set aside money to use when unexpected events, such as natural disasters, cause revenue deficits. The governor’s budget staff says that the increase is needed to account for inflation.
Democrats blasted the governor’s decision to set aside the surplus budget at unprecedented levels. They suggested the money could be better used by spending it on alleviating the state’s affordable housing crisis, helping businesses facing the increased cost of commercial rent, repairing the state’s crumbling prison system and expanding Medicaid.
“Floridians don’t want to go back to the way things were before the pandemic, when they had no health care, when they couldn’t access affordable housing,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando.
Smith said that DeSantis’ proposed budget “funds a paltry $25.5 million” to take an additional 480 people with disabilities off the wait list for the iBudget waiver program, which provides home and community-based care to extremely ill or vulnerable Floridians. That’s a small fraction of the current waitlist of 22,254, including the more than 40 percent who have been waiting for more than a decade.
Smith said Floridians also want the state to expand Medicaid to draw down federal funds so the state can cover millions of uninsured residents.
The governor’s health care budget comes with few cuts, and even a few extra expenditures. DeSantis wants $198 million more in Medicaid reimbursements for certain home and community-based health care providers — with the expectation that the extra money will help providers fight a statewide nursing shortage.
Florida could draw down even more federal Medicaid money if it decided to expand the program to the state’s working poor under the Affordable Care Act. According to the progressive-leaning Florida Policy Institute, that state would get nearly $2 billion in savings in the next two years by expanding the program because of provisions in the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden in March.
Such an expansion has long been a political nonstarter for Republican leaders, however, and the proposal is not included in DeSantis’ budget.
Schools and the environment
For the third year in a row, DeSantis seeks $1,000 bonuses for classroom teachers and principals in Florida, and a bump to help school districts meet his goal of setting a $47,500 minimum salary for teachers.
The higher pay is designed to help schools recruit and retain teachers amid staffing shortages. But for a third consecutive year, they exclude school personnel — like guidance counselors, reading coaches, bus drivers and librarians — from the state’s bonus program, while veteran teachers are not guaranteed a pay raise.
Some school districts, including Pinellas County, have spent millions of dollars to offer non-classroom teachers’ bonuses. Several districts also have yet to meet the $47,500 minimum salary that DeSantis is trying to target, but districts could get closer to the mark with the governor’s proposed $600 million, which includes $50 million more for teacher pay than it did in this year’s state budget.
DeSantis’ proposed education budget also includes a $40 million increase to the pot of money that covers school transportation costs. This funding could help Florida schools deal with a school bus shortage, which has led to long waits, late arrivals to schools and, in some cases, students left stranded.
The governor also wants to increase per-student funding to $8,000, an $188 increase from this year’s budget. According to the governor’s calculations, schools are expected to see 118,287 more students enrolled, a 4 percent uptick from the 2021-2022 school year.
Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar criticized DeSantis’ spending plan, claiming it won’t address the state’s shortage of teachers and support staff.
“At a time that calls for true leadership, when our public schools are in crisis, the governor offers more of the same,” Spar said.
DeSantis seeks more than $660 million to continue Everglades restoration efforts, including $69 million to continue constructing the Everglades Agriculture Area Reservoir to reduce harmful discharges and help send more clean water south of the Everglades.
The budget includes $270 million in local and statewide projects intended to help the state adapt to the impacts of climate change. The projects were submitted to the Resilient Florida grant program, a program DeSantis initiated as a way to help coastal and flood-prone communities as rising sea levels impact their communities.
The budget spends $53 million on diesel emission reductions and electric vehicle infrastructure with money from the $166 million Volkswagen Clean Air Act settlement and the transportation budget includes $597.7 million in rail and transit projects.
However, the governor’s budget does not include any incentive funds to wean the state off fossil fuels. When asked, DeSantis referred to investments by private utility companies in solar and said the state “absolutely has to have fossil fuels” as part of the fuel mix.
He accused the Biden administration of wanting higher fuel prices to discourage people from driving.
“For people that have put food on the table, they’re commuting to work, and when the price of gas goes from $2.20 to $3.40, they’re eating that,’’ he said.