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Both Chambers Weigh In On Budget A Day Before Casting Final Vote

The Florida Legislature is expected to approve its final product of this year’s budget Saturday. But to close out the week, both chambers got their turn to weigh in on the spending plan one last time Friday.

“Our budget is growing – and it’s done in an organic way,” said Representative Dane Eagle, Vice Chair of the House Appropriations Committee. “It’s done because we have more people moving to the state every single day.”

Part of that growing budget that the Cape Coral Republican likes is what he says is never-before-seen levels of environmental funding.

“The appropriations that we’ve done for Everglades restoration and water quality – nearly $700 million going towards our environment,” Eagle said, “which is unprecedented.”

Eagle attributed much of that effort to the commitments Governor Ron DeSantis has made to environmental spending, and called this year’s budget the most “Everglades-friendly” in state history.

Pinellas County Democrat Ben Diamond says there’s one compromise in the budget he found encouraging.

“Looking at the budget from the perspective of our state’s economy, I’m very pleased with the compromised we reached in keeping Visit Florida,” Diamond said.

The state’s tourism wing will be funded only for another year in the budget. Diamond says that’s one area where he and House Speaker Jose Oliva don’t see eye to eye.

“I have great respect for my speaker, and I know we have a principled disagreement on that issue,” Diamond said. “But I think that we landed in a good place to keep supporting the agency that is supporting and trying to help market this state.”

Rep. Lorrane Ausley says the original plan to defund Visit Florida was a reason she has been a ‘no’ vote on the House budget thus far. Because the spending plan doesn’t include an across-the-board raise for state workers and what she feels is adequate funding for Hurricane Michael recovery, Ausley won’t be changing her mind.

“Members, we have an obligation in this state to help our people recover and rebuild,” Ausley said. “And the people of the Panhandle can’t wait any longer. So as much as I want to vote for this budget today, I simply can’t support a budget that doesn’t support our public employees, or provide enough help for the people of the Panhandle.”

Republican Representative Ray Rodrigues says he will be voting up on the budget. He chairs the chamber’s Health and Human Services Committee.

“You can’t talk about a healthcare budget, without addressing the largest threat to our healthcare that’s occurring right now, which is the opioid crisis,” Rodrigues said. “This budget provides more than $80 million in opioid and substance abuse services.”

In the Senate, too, budget silo chairs gave some of their highlights of the spending plan before a final vote is cast over the weekend. Senator Rob Bradley is the chamber’s appropriations chair. He says there are four overall themes to the budget.

“One would be the commitment we showed to education,” Bradley said. “There is contained herein a $250 per-student increase in the FEFP.”

The Senate had originally proposed a larger increase to the main funding model for public schools, but moved toward the House’s position in the last few weeks.

Bradley says environmental spending is another of the four budget pillars. He adds infrastructure spending is yet another, citing the full funding of the Florida Department of Transportation work plan. And the fourth, earmarking aid for the ailing Florida Panhandle to recover from historic Hurricane Michael, now designated as a Category 5 storm.

“We are continued to be frustrated with the response of the federal government. It’s been in fits and starts. But rather than wait for D.C. to do its job, we stepped up like we always do,” Bradley said. “And thank goodness we’re good fiscal stewards – we had the reserves to be able to step up.”

The Senate’s education PreK-12 education budget conference chair Kelli Stargel was asked by Democratic Senator Janet Cruz to explain a reduction in funding for the state’s Schools of Hope program. The program allows charter operators to take over traditional public schools deemed persistently low-performing.

Cruz: “I have a note of $40 million for Schools of Hope – where was that amount last year?”

Stargel: “The Schools of Hope number last year was quite a bit higher. This was a significant reduction, but still allowed schools that have applied and been accepted to Schools of Hope to continue moving on”

Cruz: “When you say significant reduction, do you have any idea of what that number is?”

Stargel: “The appropriations chair from last year is telling me it was $140 million down to $40 million.”

Stargel told Cruz she feels that reduction in funding isn’t an indication that the program isn’t working.

Senator Aaron Bean says on Healthcare, this year’s budget goes bigger than the last.

“What is the result of the work we put in? How about, a proposal that appropriates $37.6 billion, which includes $10.2 (billion) in general revenue,” Bean said. “It’s an increase of over $300 million – a three percent increase over last year’s funding.”

The legislature is expected to approve the budget Saturday afternoon.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.