By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Dubbing it the “framework for freedom,” Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday proposed a nearly $114.8 billion budget for next year that includes a variety of tax cuts and more money for such things as teacher pay.
The proposal is an initial step as lawmakers prepare to negotiate a budget for the 2023-2024 fiscal year during the legislative session that will start March 7. The budget for the current year, which started July 1, totaled $109.9 billion after DeSantis signed it and issued vetoes.
As he released the new proposal Wednesday during an event at the Capitol, DeSantis touted the state’s economy and large budget reserves that could help clear the way for tax cuts and increased spending on programs.
“This is a big deal, in terms of this budget,” DeSantis said. “I think it is going to meet the needs of the people of Florida. It’s only possible because we have been a state that’s been able to thrive over these last few years, and we are going to continue those policies going forward.”
Here are some key issues in the proposal:
The proposal would earmark $1 billion for public school teacher salaries, a $200 million increase from the current year. DeSantis also would not raise tuition for state college and university students and wants to spend $100 million to recruit and retain faculty members.
The budget includes $1.1 billion for Everglades restoration and water-quality issues, including $614 million for the Everglades, according to the governor’s office. As an example of other projects, the proposal includes $100 million for a program to help clean up the Indian River Lagoon, where poor water quality has resulted in such things as hundreds of manatee deaths.
The proposal includes 5 percent across-the-board pay increases for state workers and additional money for targeted jobs. For instance, the proposal seeks to increase starting pay for correctional officers to $23 an hour, as the state tries to curb high turnover among prison workers.
DeSantis said the proposal includes $2 billion in tax relief, though that includes $500 million that was approved by the Legislature in a December special session to give bill credits to frequent users of toll roads. Other parts of the package include a permanent sales-tax exemption for baby and toddler needs, such as clothing and shoes; a one-year sales-tax exemption on certain household items, such as laundry detergent and toilet paper; and two back-to-school sales-tax “holidays.”
DeSantis’ proposal is buoyed by higher-than-expected tax revenues, while the state also received a flood of federal stimulus money during the COVID-19 pandemic. That combination has helped build reserves that DeSantis and lawmakers can tap.
For example, DeSantis this week announced a four-year, $7 billion proposal to speed completion of 20 highway projects, with $4 billion coming from the surplus.
But while DeSantis on Wednesday touted increased spending on priorities, the Florida Education Association teachers union criticized the proposal for not doing more to raise pay for educators and deal with a teacher shortage. The union said the proposed additional $200 million for teacher pay would translate to about a $20 a week increase for each teacher.
“An approximately $20 per week increase will do little for many teachers who are struggling, like so many Floridians, with rent that has doubled under this governor, homeowners insurance that has doubled under this governor, health care costs, which have shot up under this governor, and other increased expenses,” union President Andrew Spar said in a prepared statement. “The professionals who serve Florida’s children deserve salaries that will support their own families.”
— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.