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TALLAHASSEE — During a surreal two-hour meeting of the Florida Legislature on Thursday, lawmakers tried to put a good face on the $93.2 billion budget they were about to pass.
It was a “responsible” budget, they said. It was based on the “best information we have,” they said. Republicans and Democrats alike praised it.
In reality, the budget they unanimously passed Thursday is likely just a placeholder, a relic of the pre-coronavirus era of just two weeks ago.
The virus, which has already shut down the state’s tourism-dependent economy, could cost the state billions in sales tax revenue, which would likely force lawmakers to scramble back to Tallahassee to overhaul the budget they passed Thursday.
“We all know it’s extremely likely that we will have to reconvene in the coming months to deal with the dramatic effects of the coronavirus,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point.
In the meantime, the budget includes $52.5 million in additional money, most of it from the federal government, for COVID-19 response in the current budget year. Another $300 million in contingency funds can be used by Gov. Ron DeSantis for emergency response on top of a $3 billion fund intended for emergencies.
Just how bad the economic damage will be is unclear. State economists, whose projections are used to frame the state budget, will start meeting every month now, instead of every quarter. There is time for the Legislature to meet again and make changes before July 1, when the budget takes effect.
Already, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association said Thursday that hotels and businesses have shed 400,000 jobs since the outbreak. Lawmakers reassured each other on Thursday that the $4 billion in the unemployment compensation fund would be enough to weather the storm.
But some of the state’s top lawmakers seemed to be living in different realities.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, told his colleagues that the current situation “feels worse” than after the 9/11 attacks, when lawmakers had to come back and revise the budget.
“I have constituents at home that are going to wonder what we were thinking," Lee said. "We do the best we can with the information we have at the time.”
Yet House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, who has continued to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic for at least the past two weeks, said lawmakers would only come back if there was a "prolonged economic crisis.”
A coronavirus vaccine could prevent that crisis, he said. Medical officials have warned a vaccine is months or more than a year away, however.
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“Just as quickly as this crisis turned difficult for our economy," Oliva told reporters, “a vaccine could turn things around just as quickly.”
While DeSantis can veto tens of millions of dollars in special projects in the budget, a major shortfall in revenue could cost him and lawmakers from both parties some major policy wins.
DeSantis wanted 2020 to be “the year of the teacher,” and the Legislature obliged, setting aside $500 million for teacher raises. It was $100 million less than what the governor wanted, and early calculations show it won’t be enough for all districts to raise their minimum teacher salaries to DeSantis’ $47,500 goal.
DeSantis said Thursday that Floridians would probably prefer he keep those raises and cut in other places.
Anything, even widely popular bipartisan measures in the budget, could be in play.
Lawmakers this year set aside $370 million for affordable housing programs that offer low-interest loans to developers, the largest amount in years. In leaner times, they’ve swept that money and spent it on other things.
Lawmakers also approved 3 percent pay raises for all state employees, including DeSantis and Cabinet members.
On top of that, they made significant strides towards fixing the state’s prisons, giving corrections officers another $500 to $2,500 depending on their experience. Teachers who work in the prison system are set to get a pay raise comparable to teachers outside of the system, and Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch was given $2.2 million for a “security threat group” to crack down on inmate gangs.
Lawmakers also touted spending $100 million to buy and preserve land around the state.
The Legislature was scheduled to end its 60-day session on March 13, but the looming coronavirus threat prompted them to make some modest last-minute revisions.
They dramatically scaled back a tax break package from more than $200 million to just $42 million, and they decided not to touch $64 million in supplemental Medicaid funding that currently goes to 28 facilities that treat the majority of Medicaid patients in Florida.
Justin Senior, CEO of Safety Net Hospitals Alliance of Florida, said maintaining funding, which he calls the “critical care fund,” is crucial. The looming threat of COVID-19 may have also contributed to the decision to hold off on touching the funding, Senior said.
“There was hesitation to make major changes in the face of a pandemic,” he said.
Lawmakers from both parties praised the budget, however, and Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, commended Republican budget leaders for injecting last-minute funding into a local project that provides food assistance to the needy. Taddeo asked for $1 million to fund the Feeding South Florida program, which has been boxing food to needy kids who are out of school because of the coronavirus.
The House initially didn’t fund it and the Senate offered $250,000 but, over the weekend, legislative leaders agreed to fund it at the full $1 million.
“They are aware and worried,’’ Taddeo said. “It’s a good budget.”
But what the budget will look like by July 1 isn’t much clearer than when the session started on Jan. 14.
“We’re still in the triage stage, trying to figure out what are the actual impacts,’’ said Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami. “I think we’re four weeks to figuring out the next stage of what this really really means.”
Information from the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.
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