House, Senate get ready for budget talks

Rep. Fentrice Driskell

By Jim Turner
 News Service of Florida

 The Florida House and Senate are positioned to begin negotiations on a record state budget, after the House unanimously passed a $113 billion proposal.

The House vote came after the Senate last Monday approved its $113.7 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that will start July 1. The two chambers will need to reach agreement on a final budget before the scheduled May 5 end of the annual legislative session.

“Members we have a lot of work left to do before we can land the final budget,” House Appropriations Chairman Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, told House members after last Tuesday’s vote.

The first step in negotiations will involve House and Senate leaders reaching agreement on what are known as “allocations” — overall amounts designated for different areas of the budget, such as education and health and human services. Conference-committee members then will negotiate differences in spending details.

“There’s a lot of similarities (in the budget proposals). But there are some differences,” House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said last Tuesday. “So, we have to go through the allocation process. I see a place to land, but you know … it can get bumpy.”

Lawmakers are flush with cash this year, in part because of higher-than-expected tax revenues. But House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said last Tuesday’s unanimous vote wasn’t a sign Democrats agreed with every element of the House spending plan.

“We all have to do the best that we can to provide for our communities and make sure that critical resources reach them, that there’s funding for the arts and the environment and so many different things,” Driskell said.

As examples of issues that will be in play during negotiations, the Senate has proposed a 3 percent across-the-board pay increase for state employees, while the House has proposed 6 percent raises.

Also, the House does not want to fund the business-recruitment agency Enterprise Florida and the tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida. The Senate, for instance, wants to spend $80 million on Visit Florida, an increase of $30 million from the current year.

The Senate also would provide $75 million for the Job Growth Grant Fund, which Gov. Ron DeSantis can tap for regional infrastructure projects and workforce-training programs. The House has proposed spending $25 million on the program, while DeSantis has asked for $100 million.

Meanwhile, in one of DeSantis’ priorities, the House has proposed spending $107.9 million on the recently revived Florida State Guard. The money would allow the state guard’s ranks to jump from 400 to 1,500, while adding aviation and maritime components. The House offer is about $13 million more than DeSantis has requested.

The state guard is funded at $10 million this year, and the Senate spending plan does not include an increase.

Inactive since 1947, DeSantis made reviving the civilian guard a priority in 2022 to assist the Florida National Guard during emergencies.

Last Monday, House Energy, Communications & Cybersecurity Chairman Mike Giallombardo, R-Cape Coral, said more than 3,600 people have applied to be members of the state guard, with about 465 identified as “good candidates.”

A stand-alone bill (HB 1285) on the state guard was the only issue that drew opposition from House Democrats last Tuesday.

“My concern is we’re increasing the number, we have vague language (on the state guard’s duties backing up the Florida National Guard), and we’re increasing the ability for the guard to interact with Floridians without having an established framework already in place,” Rep. Ashley Gantt, D-Miami, said.

While they voted for the budget proposal, Democrats also called for added oversight of school vouchers, additional funding in areas such as the arts, child-care services and the environment and expanding eligibility for Medicaid coverage.

They unsuccessfully tried last Monday to remove $12 million that Republicans plan to provide for transporting migrants to “sanctuary” areas of the country.

Rep. Robin Bartleman, a Weston Democrat who is an educator, raised concerns about a recently signed law (HB 1) that expands voucher programs.

“When we talk about how many people we think are going to take advantage of this, I don’t want to underestimate the fact that 300,000 people have the potential to do so,” Bartleman said.

Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando, expressed concerns that legislation accompanying the vouchers doesn’t include ways to ensure those students “will get a good quality education.”

Antone also voiced a need for the budget to include more funding for urban communities.

“I like the fact that we’re investing in our infrastructure, roads, highways, bridges, what have you,” Antone said. “But we’ve got to put that same energy into those inner-city and urban communities. They’ve been neglected for so long.”

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