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Florida’s state budget looks good—for now | Editorial
There’s new investment in teacher salaries, affordable housing and the environment. But the coronavirus crisis will cost the state money and shift priorities.
 
OT_351116_KEEL_FLGOV_SCOTT KEELER (03/06/2012 TALLAHASSEE)   8. The State of Florida Capitol complex in Tallahassee.  (FOR SUNDAY STORY). FOR FILE.     TIMES PHOTO SCOTT KEELER
OT_351116_KEEL_FLGOV_SCOTT KEELER (03/06/2012 TALLAHASSEE) 8. The State of Florida Capitol complex in Tallahassee. (FOR SUNDAY STORY). FOR FILE. TIMES PHOTO SCOTT KEELER [ Times (2012) ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published March 19, 2020|Updated March 19, 2020

There was no large sine die ceremony after the Florida Legislature unanimously approved a $93 billion state budget Thursday and adjourned, no crowd of aides and lobbyists cheering on the fourth floor of the state capitol. In ordinary times, there would be great celebration for a budget that includes hundreds of millions to significantly raise teacher salaries, invest in affordable housing and protect the environment. But these are not ordinary times, and it is a safe bet the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic will require lawmakers to revisit the budget before the end of the year and make some tough decisions.

First, the good news. The Legislature handed Gov. Ron DeSantis a significant victory by allocating $500 million to raise teacher salaries. The governor’s goal to raise the minimum salary to $47,500 is aspirational, and some counties may not quite get there. But Florida ranks a pathetic 46th in the nation in average teacher salary, and DeSantis deserves enormous credit for successfully pushing for a significant investment in teachers. Legislative leaders followed through, and they were wise to end a teacher bonus program and invest the money in salaries instead.

Second, for the first time in more than a decade the Legislature has fully funded the state’s affordable housing trust fund at $370 million. There is an affordable housing shortage in Tampa Bay and in other parts of Florida, and the economic downturn triggered by the coronavirus pandemic will increase the need. This money will be directed into programs that help low-income families with down payments for homes and give low-interest loans to developers who build affordable housing. The money comes from a documentary tax on real estate transactions that is supposed to be dedicated to affordable housing, but over the last two decades lawmakers have diverted more than $2 billion to other uses. Senate President Bill Galvano and House Speaker Jose Oliva deserve credit for putting a stop to that at least for a year.

Third, significant investment was also made on environmental issues compared to previous years. For example, there is $100 million for the Florida Forever land preservation program. That’s less than the $300 million the program annually received years ago, but it’s three times more than lawmakers allocated last year.

Of course, this is a state budget not written in stone because of the evolving impact of the coronavirus. Lawmakers added an additional $300 million to state reserves and more than $50 million to the Department of Health to prepare for the costs and the fallout, but that likely will be a small down payment. The state’s economic experts are expected to meet monthly to track the revenue trends. DeSantis and state lawmakers also should look at enhancing the state’s unemployment benefits, which at $275 a week for 12 weeks are among the stingiest in the nation. To his credit, DeSantis said he already is looking at waiving some of the requirements to qualify for unemployment, such as looking for work. Expanding Medicaid benefits and small business bridge loans also should be priorities.

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As DeSantis said after the Legislature adjourned, "We are in a different world than we were just a few weeks ago.'' The 2020-21 state budget, which takes effect July 1, is likely to look significantly different before Christmas.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news