House passes $105.3 billion spending plan

TALLAHASSEE – What would be a record $105.3 billion spending plan bolstered by federal stimulus money was approved Wednesday by the Florida House, helping set up negotiations with the Senate on a final budget for the 2022-2023 fiscal year.

The House voted 102-14 to approve the proposal (HB 5001), after Democrats objected to shifting $200 million away from 12 school districts that required students to wear masks last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic and called for more money to go to affordable housing and health care.

“This budget does a whole lot for our people, including law enforcement, correctional officers our state workforce,” said House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, a Panama City Republican who called the package a “starting point” with the Senate.

The budget proposal, among other things, would boost overall funding for public schools and includes a pay increase of 5.3 percent for state workers.

The Senate is slated Thursday to take up its $108.6 billion budget proposal. Both plans would top the current year’s budget of just over $100 billion.

For House Democrats, one of the biggest concerns was what they say is a politically motivated move to punish 12 school districts that went against Gov. Ron DeSantis by requiring students to wear masks. The Senate does not have a similar proposal to strip money from the districts.

“That’s $72 million from Miami-Dade, $32 million from Broward, the counties I represent,” Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said. “I know it’s supposedly targeted at bureaucrats. Bureaucrats who oversee anything and everything from school safety to special education to the needs of our students.”

But House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, said education funding will go up. The $200 million would be shifted to districts that did not impose mask mandates.

Fine maintained that the 12 “school districts broke the law” and that none of the $200 million would be cut from student programs.

“The governor has asked us to be even clearer that these changes, that this money that we are not providing cannot come from students,” Fine said.

While Democrats raised numerous concerns about the budget, many joined Republicans in voting for it.

Rep. Ben Diamond, a St. Petersburg Democrat who voted against the plan, said the state has $10 billion available because of federal pandemic assistance and can do more to help people struggling to afford housing, along with increasing educational and health care services.

“The issues I hear about are the issues of the increasing costs for working Floridians,” Diamond said. “The cost of housing in my community, Tampa Bay, is skyrocketing. Rents have gone up by over 20 percent last year.”

Under a formula created in 2021, the House is proposing to spend $268.1 million on affordable-housing programs, up from $209.2 million in the current fiscal year, but about $70 million less than what the Senate has proposed.

‘We are seeing folks have to turn to, whether it’s safety nets or straight-up homelessness, because they can’t find a place to live right now,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said. “And it’s not even just situations related to the pandemic. I’m talking about folks who have jobs, folks who are working, who are doing everything by the book that we in this country admire, they’re hard-working Floridians, and yet they cannot pay their bills on time.”

Democrats also decried Republican leaders for continuing to refuse to expand eligibility for Medicaid and for including $25 million in the budget for local projects pitched by Democrats, compared to $457 million for Republican-backed proposals.

“We’re supposed to take care of all Floridians, regardless of the person who represents the district,” Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, said. “The folks who live in my district are as important as the folks who live in the districts of those who sit in the front rows.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Randy Maggard, R-Dade City, praised the spending plan for including $16.2 million to help the citrus industry continue research against deadly citrus greening disease. And Rep. Toby Overdorf, R-Palm City, highlighted efforts to protect water resources and the environment, including manatees after a record year of deaths of the sea cows.

“We are working $13.8 million into an area that is really near and dear to so many of us in this room, and that’s the manatee rescue and mortality response,” Overdorf said. ”This is an area that all of our citizens very strongly voiced about.”

The House plan, in part, includes $442.5 million for Everglades restoration, $50 million for springs, $50 million for beach restoration and $14.6 million to address red tide outbreaks.

Republicans also touted putting more money into state reserves, while establishing a $500 million fund that the governor can use for emergencies and a separate $2 billion fund to help cover unexpected costs driven by inflation.

“We have seen in previous years, we’ve seen recessions and we’ve seen our economy tank,” Rep. Mike Giallombardo, R-Cape Coral, said. “And we’re, right now, we’re in a huge hyperinflation right now. And who knows what’s going to happen in the future. This right here, this absolutely helps our state plan for the future in every aspect that we need.”

Republican leaders also have focused on efforts to boost pay for law-enforcement officers and correctional officers. Under the House plan, base pay for correctional officers, correctional probation officers and inspectors would go up to $41,600 a year, with $15.9 million set aside for retention pay and $8 million to improve facilities.

“Maybe that’ll stop the bleed, because they were losing more people than they were hiring,” Rep. Chuck Brannan, R-Macclenny, said. “It’s just been reported to me that we’ve turned the corner, that the hiring versus departures have broken even. I hope in the next month or so that we’ll be hiring more employees there than are departing.”