With dueling budgets set for votes in the House and Senate, a host of big-ticket spending issues still need to be resolved.
TALLAHASSEE – The Florida House and Senate are set Thursday to approve dueling state budget plans – meaning the real work of the session is just about to begin.
Settling scores of differences between spending proposals that span 425 pages will dominate the two-month session’s closing weeks. Here are five key areas that negotiators must decide.
With its budget weighing in at $92.8 billion, the Senate spends $1.4 billion more than the House. The gap will begin shrinking once the two sides start exchanging spending offers on specific programs. But the House has touted its plan as costing taxpayers less per-capita than last year’s budget, and may be intent on keeping the bottom line below a thrifty $92 billion.
State pay raises
Florida’s ruling Republicans rarely hand out pay raises for public workers. But this year, salary hikes for teachers and state workers are central to budget talks. Gov. Ron DeSantis created the buzz with a $900 million pay raise and bonus package for the lowest-paid teachers and principals when he unveiled his budget recommendation last fall.
But the House has countered DeSantis with $650 million for teachers and the Senate $500 million. Neither has a bonus plan – yet both sides have thrown a curve at the former college baseball-playing governor.
Along with teacher pay, the Senate is seeking a 3 percent pay raise for all state workers; and the House $1,800 for those earning $50,000 or less.
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A big ticket fight over public salaries is unexplored territory for Florida Republicans. But finalizing a pay plan for teachers and state workers will go a long way toward reaching a budget compromise.
The state’s environmental land-buying program always turns into a budget piņata in Tallahassee, and 2020 looks no different.
While the House and Senate budgets both give DeSantis more than the $625 million he wants for Everglades restoration and water quality projects, his call for $100 million to preserve endangered land is met only by the Senate.
The House comes in with $20 million for Florida Forever while the Senate pours $125 million into the program.
Land-buying has taken a back seat with Republican leaders in recent years. DeSantis had to settle for only one-third of the $100 million he sought last year for Florida Forever, one of the few setbacks dealt by the Legislature to the first-year governor.
If recent history is a guide, it’s likely the Senate’s more robust spending figure will shrink when budget wheeling-and-dealing begins.
Florida lawmakers have long drained dollars from the state’s affordable housing trust funds to patch holes in other budget areas. The result: $2.3 billion has been diverted from housing over the past two decades.
The House is at it again this year, siphoning off $240 million for use elsewhere in the budget, while the Senate would spend the full $387 million on housing.
The clash comes at a time when data shows that rising home prices in Florida have driven the demand for affordable housing to levels not seen since before the Great Recession. A report by the Florida Housing Coalition shows more than 1 million Floridians spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing.
The steady diversion of housing dollars has prompted legislation in both the House and Senate that would bar the practice. While the bill has cleared a Senate committee, it has not moved in the House — suggesting that chamber may be looking to maintain the lower level of spending on housing as budget talks advance.
The premier marketing agency for Florida tourism has been kept on a short — and tightening — leash by state lawmakers the past two years.
The House wants to abolish the agency at the end of the budget year on June 30, saying it is an unnecessary use of state dollars. DeSantis, though, disagrees – recommending $50 million to keep Visit Florida alive at its current, shrunken level.
The agency lost a quarter of its budget last year and one-third of its 135 employees. But the governor has an ally in the Senate, which tucked $50 million into its budget for Visit Florida and is considering separate legislation that would delay its expiration until 2028.
House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, is in his final year as speaker. And after forcing the big reduction on Visit Florida last year, he may be eager to erase it completely now.