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The end of session is near: The Florida House and Senate start hammering out a budget deal

A white, domed building with red and white awnings is partly shrouded by a Live Oak tree on a sunny afternon
Craig Moore
/
WFSU Public Media
The afternoon sun shines on the Old Capitol building.

House and Senate negotiators Wednesday continued trying to hammer out high-profile spending issues in what likely will result in a record state budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

“We're at a place now where we're just talking about dinero,” Senate Agriculture, Environment and General Government Appropriations Chairman Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, said Wednesday morning amid a round of conference committee meetings. “We're talking about how things are, the level they're going to be funded. That's probably the biggest question that needs to be asked.”

The Senate last month proposed a $108.6 billion budget for the 2022-2023 fiscal year, while the House proposed a $105.3 billion plan. But much of the negotiations center on how to spend about $42.44 in state general revenue, which is a flexible source of money that is used heavily to pay for schools, health programs and prisons.

Lawmakers also are trying to reach agreement on what are known as budget “conforming” bills. As examples, the Senate has proposed a $31.3 million plan (SB 2512) to add two state airplanes that could be used by state leaders and a controversial environmental bill (SB 2508) that involves water distribution and a wetlands permitting process.

Meanwhile, the House has proposed a $2 billion fund as a hedge against inflation and to make a political statement against the federal government (HB 5011). The Senate on Wednesday removed the specific amount of money and the title of the bill --- Budgeting for Inflation that Drives Elevated Needs Fund, with an acronym of BIDENF --- before placing the item into talks.

Subject-area conference committees face a Thursday deadline to reach agreement on issues. Unresolved issues then will go to House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City and Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, for further negotiations.

Lawmakers need to finish a budget by Tuesday if they are going to end the legislative session as scheduled March 11. That is because of a legally required 72-hour “cooling off” period before lawmakers can vote on the budget.

Here is a snapshot of some of the myriad budget issues:

EDUCATION

House negotiators on Tuesday night pumped up its proposed funding for public schools to $24.4 billion.

That offer to the Senate would represent a roughly $1.8 billion increase over the current year’s budget and nearly $500 million more than what was included in the initial House spending plan last month.

But a major issue in the negotiations is a House proposal to shift $200 million away from 12 school districts that required students to wear masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic after Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republican leaders sought to prevent such mask mandates.

Leon County Superintendent of Schools Rocky Hanna, who leads one of the targeted districts, attended a Tuesday night conference committee meeting to oppose what the House has dubbed the “Putting Parents First” adjustment.

“I wasn’t playing politics with any decision I made (about masks). I was trying to do what the people in this community wanted, to keep our children safe and to keep our schools open,” Hanna said, calling the plan a “travesty.”

House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, argued that the proposed increase in overall funding for public schools would more than make up for the shift. The $200 million would be distributed to 55 other districts that did not require students to wear masks.

Fine also bristled at Hanna’s opposition.

“I listened to him as attentively as he listened to parents over the last couple of years,” Fine told reporters.

“I listened to him as attentively as he listened to parents over the last couple of years.”
Rep. Fine, in response to Leon Superintendent Rocky Hanna's plea to not impose a $200m holdback on districts that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis mask mandate ban.

PRISONS

House and Senate leaders agreed to spend $650 million to build a 4,500-bed prison and $200 million to construct a prison hospital. The Senate’s proposed budget originally included money for two large prisons and two prison hospitals.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has pushed Department of Corrections officials to shutter and consolidate aging prisons --- some of which are nearly a century old --- and steer the savings toward pay increases for prison workers.

The corrections agency for years balked at closing prisons, until staffing shortages reached a tipping point last summer and officials mothballed two institutions. Lawmakers in November steered $67 million to the state agency for pay hikes and recruitment incentives.

The new mega-prison would more than double the size of current facilities, which typically house fewer than 2,000 inmates. The location of the proposed institution has not been determined, Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Keith Perry told The News Service of Florida.

Rural officials have pleaded with lawmakers not to close prisons in their regions, saying that the institutions are backbones of local economies.

“I think taking into account these rural areas and economic drivers, I think that’s critically important. It’s a very fair conversation to have. However, the decisions made on that shouldn’t drive things that wouldn’t be in the best interest of a public corrections department for the state of Florida,” Perry said.

Discussions are underway about converting old prisons into manufacturing facilities, selling them or repurposing the institutions for other uses, Perry said.

“We have all kinds of opportunities, but the key is we cannot have antiquated prisons that are unsafe,” Perry said, noting that some of the state’s oldest prisons pose health risks from asbestos and mold. “The other thing is efficiency. How can we build a prison that’s very efficient, both to operate from electricity and energy usage, as well as maximizing safety for the guards, where they can monitor different things in different ways.”

Lawmakers hope that modern, air-conditioned prisons will be more appealing to potential employees, as the Department of Corrections, which houses about 80,000 inmates.

The vacancy rate for corrections officers is just under 32 percent statewide, with staff shortages at prisons in some pockets of Florida even higher, Department of Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon told a Senate panel in January. The ideal vacancy rate for prisons to run safely and provide opportunities for inmates to engage in education and training is 3 percent, according to Dixon.

HEALTH CARE

The Senate wants to spend $100 million a year on a cancer-research program and name it after Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis, who was diagnosed last year with breast cancer, Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairman Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said Wednesday.

Bean made the announcement as Senate and House negotiators continued working out details of health-care spending.

The House proposed spending $37.77 million on the cancer research program, a proposal that Bean called a “bold initiative to cure cancer.” But he said Simpson wants to “up that pot” to $100 million, with the money contingent on naming the initiative the “Casey DeSantis Cancer Research Program.”

“The Senate wants to take a step further in curing cancer,” Bean said.

The Senate also made a series of offers to help carry out an initiative by House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, to bolster the parenting skills of fathers. The Senate offers did not match the amounts of money proposed by the House, leaving the issues subject to further negotiation.

The House last month passed a related bill (HB 7065) that, in part, would direct the Department of Children and Families to contract for the creation of the “Responsible Fatherhood Initiative.” The department would contract with an entity to launch a website and distribute other materials that would inform fathers on effective parenting.

Bean also said the Senate was introducing a new proposal into budget talks to spend $3.8 million to launch a new program at the Florida Department of Health related to human breast milk.

“We call this liquid gold,” Bean said. “Sen Book (Minority Leader Lauren Book) has spent a lot of time on it, and we have seen the value of human breast milk.”