The negotiations among Florida's legislative leaders over the roughly $90 billion state budget are moving behind closed doors, and the outcome will have a significant impact on Tampa Bay in areas such as local school districts, hospitals and the University of South Florida. The trend lines are disturbing, given the separate 2019-20 spending plans approved by the House and Senate. With about three weeks left in the legislative session, here are four areas of concern:
Public schools. Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican leadership in the Legislature remain determined to steer millions of tax dollars toward vouchers for private school tuition even though a similar program was found unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court. On top of that, the House wants to spend $140 million on the unnecessary Schools of Hope charter schools.
Yet as the money flows to private schools and privately run charter schools, lawmakers continue to short-change traditional public schools. The cost of hiring armed security and hardening campuses following last year's massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland continues to be an unfunded mandate. The increase in base per student spending is a modest $38 in the House budget and a more reasonable $149 in the Senate budget. That's better than the miserly 47 cents per student last year, but imagine what could be accomplished if Republicans weren't so eager to privatize public education.
Universities. In an era when the state should be investing in higher education, the University of South Florida could face millions in budget cuts. House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami, argues universities spend too much, and the House budget calls for a 2.5 percent across-the-board spending cut. That would cost USF about $12 million. And just as USF has joined the University of Florida and Florida State to achieve the coveted preeminent status, the House wants to cut that spending by 13 percent, or $20 million. That would cost USF about $3 million.
Health care. At a time when most states have expanded Medicaid to improve access to health care for low-income families, Republican legislators in Florida are pushing to spend less. Or they want to redistribute existing money in ways that would hurt hospitals that treat more of the state's poor, such as Tampa General.
As the House pushes to deregulate health care in a misguided notion that competition will improve access and affordability, it wants to cut Medicaid spending by 3 percent, or more than $100 million. The Florida Hospital Association points out the state's Medicaid program already is among the lowest funded in the nation, and the state ranks dead last in Medicaid spending for children. The House budget would cost Tampa General $3.7 million.
The Senate budget avoids cutting Medicaid, but it wants to spread more than $300 million that goes to safety net hospitals to help cover the cost of treating the poor to far more hospitals. Cutting a pie that isn't big enough into more pieces is not the answer, and the Senate budget would cost Tampa General $13.7 million.
Affordable housing. Local governments around Tampa Bay wisely have been increasing spending on affordable housing programs, and voters passed a constitutional amendment that requires the state to set aside specific dollars for that priority. Yet the Legislature continues to siphon off that money for other uses. This time, the House budget sends $123 million to the Florida Panhandle to help hurricane recovery efforts, and the Senate sends $100 million to that area. Hurricane recovery needs state resources, but the money should not be taken from affordable housing.