Orlando Sentinel | by Jim Turner, News Service of Florida | April 1, 2021
TALLAHASSEE — Florida House and Senate committees have moved forward with budget proposals that stand $2 billion apart and take different approaches to $10 billion in federal stimulus money headed to state government.
The House’s $97 billion proposal includes tapping into the federal money for several expenses, including paying for long-delayed building maintenance, upgrading the state’s unemployment system and creating a $1 billion emergency reserve fund for use by the governor.
The Senate, with a $95 billion package (SPB 2500), decided to hold off on factoring in the anticipated influx of stimulus cash. Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said specific details on the federal funding remain unclear.
“I’m hopeful that as more information becomes known the source of funding will be available to us later in session,” Stargel said.
Votes on the budget proposals Wednesday by the Senate Appropriations Committee and the House Appropriations Committee were initial steps as leaders prepare to negotiate a final spending plan for the fiscal year that will start July 1.
Lawmakers are expected to see an increase in available cash Tuesday when state economists revise general revenue estimates.
House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, said he anticipates improved budget numbers, as monthly revenue collections have outpaced a forecast.
The House proposal (PCB APC 21-01), backed by Trumbull’s committee in a 26-4 vote, would use $3.5 billion of the stimulus money for deferred maintenance needs at state and school facilities. Among other things, it would provide $2 billion to offset revenue losses in the state transportation trust fund; provide $1 billion to fund a new Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund in the governor’s office; and provide $630 million for environmental programs that include beach renourishment, resiliency, and septic-to-sewer conversions.
The House plan also includes a stimulus-infused $2.2 billion boost to reserves.
Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, said the House plan is missing opportunities to do more to help Floridians with the stimulus money. He pointed to parts of the budget that, for example, include cuts for health-care programs and higher education.
One issue in funding public schools involves a forecast 48,000-student decrease in students because of the coronavirus pandemic. House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, said the House budget would set aside $334 million in case more students than predicted return to class next year.
“We’re cognizant of the fact that there may be more students coming back than the school districts and the state have predicted,” Fine said.
The Senate proposal would set aside $350 million for those student enrollment counts.
The House budget proposal would cut higher education funding by 7 percent, which Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, said is reasonable.
“There are no reductions to need-based financial aid,” said Plasencia, who chairs the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee. “There are no reductions to Bright Futures tuition and fee awards. There are no tuition increases, and there’s no current-year reductions to colleges or universities.”
The House is looking to end $600 textbook stipends available annually to recipients of Bright Futures scholarships, accounting for a $37.5 million reduction in spending.
“We’ve made great strides in textbook affordability in recent years. And … we’re focusing on ‘open access’ textbooks that can be utilized by all students, not just a select few,” Plasencia said.
The House plan would offer $665.8 million for Everglades restoration and water projects and $100 million for the Florida Forever land preservation program. The Senate is proposing $786 million for the Everglades and $50 million for Florida Forever.
The House and Senate would maintain funding for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing arm, at $50 million.