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Florida Legislature's budget plans are spurring education and environment debates

Florida capitol
Craig Moore
/
WFSU Public Media

Flush with federal cash and higher-than-expected tax collections, key House and Senate committees Wednesday moved forward with budget proposals that are about $3.3 billion apart.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a proposed $105.3 billion budget and accompanying bills, including a plan to create a $2 billion fund that would help address inflation-related costs.

Separately, after approving 104 amendments, the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved a proposed $108.6 billion package (SPB 2500) that includes such things as a $1.46 billion increase in the main funding formula for public schools and money for state worker raises that would bring minimum pay to $15 an hour.

The Senate package doesn’t include what the House is calling an “inflation response fund,” but Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said it’s “worthy of discussion.”

“We know that a lot of things we're doing could potentially cause some financial inflationary problems,” Stargel noted.

Otherwise, noting the push to increase state workers’ pay, Stargel said, “Our budget focuses mostly on the lowest earners in the state of Florida.”

House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, described the House’s budget as “bold and resilient” and highlighted issues such as pay increases for state workers and the creation of the inflation fund.

The most heavily debated issue in the House committee was a move to shift $200 million away from 12 school districts that bucked efforts last year by Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state leaders to prevent student mask requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. The $200 million would be distributed to 55 school districts that did not have mask mandates.

The move, dubbed the “Putting Parents First Adjustment,” would reduce money going to the school districts in Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Volusia counties.

House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, said the targeted school districts would still receive more money next year than during the current year, but the increases would be trimmed. Also, he cited fine print in the budget that said the adjustment “shall not reduce funding for any direct educational service or resource that impacts the education” of students.

Fine said lawmakers have the “power of the purse.”

“This is the only vehicle that we as a legislature have in any area, whether it’s education or otherwise, to hold folks accountable for following the policy decisions that we here have made,” Fine said. “I don’t think it’s punitive. I think it’s holding people accountable, and I think it is saying that we expect the laws that we pass to be followed by all of our school districts.”

But Democrats criticized the move, with Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, saying she is concerned about “picking winners and losers.” She said local school officials tried to do the best they could to keep students safe during the pandemic.

“I think it is disingenuous and unfortunate for us to punish those school districts because that is ultimately what it amounts to,” Driskell said.

The Senate has not proposed shifting money away from the 12 districts, and Stargel said she didn’t know the details.

“When we get into conference (budget negotiations) and look at everything comprehensively, there may be a discussion, obviously,” Stargel said.

The proposed budgets for the fiscal year that will start July 1 now go to the full House and Senate. After that, they will be ready for negotiators to work out a final version.

Both proposals are substantially higher than the roughly $100 billion budget in the current fiscal year, as the state continues to get a boost from federal stimulus money and as tax collections have topped expectations.

Environmentalists, tourism interests, and charter boat operators converged Wednesday on Tallahassee to object to a Senate bill (SB 2508) that is tied to the proposed budget. They said the bill, in part, would eliminate or threaten money for a massive reservoir intended to improve the condition of South Florida waterways by increasing the flow of water through the Everglades.

The $1.9 billion Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir was approved as a way to help reduce releases of contaminated water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, which have struggled in recent years with problems such as toxic algae.

“If you move forward with this bill, it eliminates the funding for that project that all these fishing guides, chambers of commerce, the tourism industry across our state (are) relying upon,” said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of The Everglades Foundation.

But senators, before the measure was approved, said people appear to have been misinformed by social media and are misreading the bill.

Sen. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who chairs the Agriculture, Environment, and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, said the budget proposal includes $64 million in annual funding for the reservoir, and the related bill seeks more accountability from the South Florida Water Management District.

“I believe you've been misled,” Albritton said. “I believe that asking for more accountability from an agency that receives 70% of their funding from the state of Florida, that's good government. That's good government. And we have the right and the opportunity to do that.”