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Florida lawmakers put conditions on DeSantis’ spending as they unveil $117B budget

They’re not giving him everything he wants.
 
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives in Tallahassee on Jan. 9.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives in Tallahassee on Jan. 9. [ GARY MCCULLOUGH | AP ]
Published March 5|Updated March 6

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s Republican lawmakers are putting more guardrails on some of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ spending.

When state lawmakers unveiled their $117.4 billion budget for the next fiscal year on Tuesday, it included strings on some of DeSantis’ top priorities, as well as some cuts.

His conservative overhaul of New College of Florida will still get millions — but it won’t be a blank check. His migrant relocation program isn’t getting the millions DeSantis wanted, and instead will have to survive on the money it hasn’t yet spent.

And every state agency will have to start producing reports on their progress carrying out the Legislature’s agenda.

The record spending plan, about $1 billion bigger than last year’s, still gives DeSantis largely what he wanted.

Lawmakers are devoting another $500 million to an emergency fund that he’s used to pay for immigration crackdowns. An equal amount will go to pay down state debt.

They’re also accommodating a request by DeSantis to extend toll road rebates for frequent commuters for a year, which comes with a $450 million price tag.

The spending plan for 2024-25 is yet another sign of the Legislature’s emerging independence from the governor. The Legislature controls the purse strings, and the governor is supposed to work with what he’s given, which has led to conflicts over the years.

But DeSantis has sometimes run roughshod over lawmakers, vetoing priorities of House speakers and Senate presidents and ignoring legislation they’ve passed.

His decision to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in 2022 generated national headlines and intense debate, but Republicans and Democrats saw it as a flagrant violation of the law they passed, which authorized transporting migrants only from Florida.

This year, DeSantis asked for another $5 million for the program in his proposed budget. Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said she “thought long and hard” about it.

In the end, she decided the program could survive on the $12 million lawmakers assigned last year; $9.4 million of it remains unspent.

“We’re trying to craft a responsible budget,” Passidomo said Tuesday.

Limits at New College of Florida

House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said she hasn’t seen this level of tension between the Republican-controlled Legislature and the governor.

“This looks like the Legislature is trying to flex, and demonstrate to the governor that it won’t be business as usual,” she said.

DeSantis asked for $57 million to grow the Florida State Guard, the World War II-era force that has struggled to get off the ground since he revived it in 2022.

Lawmakers decided to give it another $18.5 million. But to keep spending the money it already has, the new budget says the State Guard’s leaders have to apply for it and supply updates on “the progress of the project conceptions, design, and planning.”

Lawmakers are also setting ground rules at New College of Florida, which DeSantis is trying to turn into a beacon of conservatism.

The school has faced scrutiny for how new President Richard Corcoran, a former House speaker and an ally of the governor, has spent public funds. Despite having fewer than 800 students, Corcoran is among the best-paid university presidents, with a $1.3 million pay package. The school also has been paying DeSantis’ former spokesperson $15,000 per month for public relations work.

Lawmakers are assigning the school $15 million for temporary student housing, scholarships to recruit students, campus security and campus coaches. But unlike other universities, New College of Florida is being asked to submit a “detailed plan” before spending it.

The plan needs to identify “milestones for determining if the institution is making adequate progress towards achieving its student enrollment goals.”

Lawmakers also adopted new language requiring all state agencies to report to the Legislature “the status of implementation of recently enacted legislation.” The reports are due 90 days after the legislation takes effect.

The language hasn’t been included in any recent state budgets. When asked about the motivation behind it, state budget leaders called it simple “good governance.”

“You pass a law and it’s up to somebody else to implement it,” House Appropriations Committee chairperson Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, said Monday. “We want to make sure that they’re implementing the laws.”

The small-government advocacy group Florida TaxWatch said “it appears to establish an additional level of accountability that will further protect Florida’s taxpayers.”

Money for the prison crisis

Lawmakers also approved 3% pay raises for state workers, and additional bonuses for the state police agents who protect DeSantis and his family.

There’s an extra $10 million to help communities adapt to a legislative proposal that would relocate homeless people from public spaces.

Lawmakers are also planning on assigning some money to address the state’s worsening prison crisis, although DeSantis didn’t ask for nearly as much.

An auditing firm hired by the state determined legislators needed to devote anywhere from $6 billion to $12 billion over the next 20 years building new prisons and hospital beds amid a growing number of inmates and crumbling prison campuses. In 2022, DeSantis vetoed $840 million for a new prison and a new prison hospital, and he asked for no money this year to build new prisons.

This year, lawmakers are assigning a recurring $100 million for new housing units and major repairs and renovation. This year’s budget also includes an extra $21 million for Florida National Guard members to continue working in prisons, which are short-staffed.

But the prison system’s allocation also has strings. The Department of Corrections will have to submit monthly reports on its vacant positions and how long those positions have been open.

Times/Herald staff writer Alexandra Glorioso contributed to this report.