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Is Ron DeSantis getting what he wants in Florida’s early budget proposals?

We take a look at four points of interest in the draft budgets.
State Attorney General Ashley Moody, Rep. Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor, Senate President Wilton Simpson stand behind Gov. Ron DeSantis while he speaks after signing bills to limit COVID-19 vaccine mandates on private, state government employees and school districts at Brandon Honda in in Brandon on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.
State Attorney General Ashley Moody, Rep. Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor, Senate President Wilton Simpson stand behind Gov. Ron DeSantis while he speaks after signing bills to limit COVID-19 vaccine mandates on private, state government employees and school districts at Brandon Honda in in Brandon on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Feb. 5

The following first appeared in the Capitol Buzz newsletter, a weekly dive into the Florida Legislature from Tallahassee reporters Lawrence Mower and Kirby Wilson. To receive it in your email inbox every Saturday, click here and subscribe to the Buzz with Emily L. Mahoney.

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis and top Republican leaders in the House and Senate have put their cards on the table.

This week, legislators unveiled the first round of proposed House and Senate budgets. We now know — in broad terms — where the priorities lie for Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, when it comes to the state’s finances.

But how much do those priorities align with DeSantis, the Republican Party’s standard-bearer in Florida? We know for sure for weeks. But based on these early proposals, here are four quick points of interest in the $100 billion+ budgets.

1. Hospitals could lose out. Will DeSantis stand for that?

Hospital executives were thrilled when DeSantis unveiled his budget proposal earlier this year. The governor included nearly $310 million to hospitals that serve the most Medicaid patients — a step the institutions said would help them continue to provide care to the state’s poorest and sickest patients.

Neither the House nor the Senate included that money in their initial health care budgets this week. The House even went a step further, proposing to slash Medicaid rates for hospitals by another $252 million in exchange for investing some of that money in education programs for aspiring health care professionals.

Leaders from both chambers argued the hospitals would be fine without the extra Medicaid money because providers had hundreds of millions of federal dollars at their disposal from a fund-matching program the state implemented last year.

Hospital executives disagree.

DeSantis, who has had two high-ranking officials — Mary Mayhew and Shane Strum — leave his administration for the hospital industry, looks to be an ally of hospitals. With budget negotiations set to begin in earnest, will the governor step in to fight for the institutions he partnered with on vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and more?

“Certainly we’re hoping that he will come out very forcefully in favor of the idea that this is not the time to cut hospitals,” said Justin Senior, CEO of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance Of Florida.

2. The mask mandate wars rage on.

The House dropped another bombshell Thursday when Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, proposed taking $200 million from school districts that defied DeSantis’ stance on required masking in schools last year.

Fine said he wants the $200 million to come from the salaries of more than 1,600 non-school administrators — such as grant directors, budget managers and chief financial officers — making more than $100,000 per year in those school districts. Those funds would be redirected to 55 other districts in the state.

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Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Volusia schools would see funding cut under Fine’s proposal. All of those school districts enacted mask mandates at some point last year.

“Next time a school district is considering taking the money that we gave them so that they can sue us over a law that we passed, maybe they’ll think twice,” Fine said.

The House’s idea may not stick. The proposal was not in the Senate’s recommended budget, nor was it in DeSantis’, although the governor frequently criticized mask-mandating school districts.

3. A DeSantis priority takes a hit.

One of DeSantis’ recent talking points has been his proposal to cut the gas tax for several months this year — a response, he said, to inflation that he blames on President Joe Biden.

Cutting the tax would deprive the state of $1 billion it could spend elsewhere. (DeSantis wants to plug that hole with federal coronavirus relief funds.)

This idea isn’t included in the Senate’s budget. Katie Betta, a spokesperson for Simpson, noted that none of the tax relief packages are in the budget yet.

But Simpson is cold to the idea anyway, she said.

“It is important to President Simpson that tax cuts primarily benefit Floridians,” Betta wrote. “The fact that the gas tax is paid by both Floridians and non-Floridians is a factor he is thinking about as he considers whether to support a temporary reduction in the gas tax over other broad-based tax relief ideas.”

4. A revival of the state fleet?

When Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011, he sold off the state fleet because he could afford his own plane (and also to make good on a campaign promise).

That left DeSantis, his successor, in a lurch, flying around in a plane owned by state police. (No, the plane was not seized from a drug dealer.)

Lawmakers already bought him one plane in his first year in office. The Senate budget includes plans to spend $20 million on two more planes.

Does the governor need two more aircraft? No. But the state planes were traditionally accessible to the lieutenant governor, the leaders of the House and Senate, the Supreme Court’s chief justice and members of the Cabinet. Simpson, as it happens, is running for a Cabinet seat next year: agriculture commissioner.

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