Florida budget negotiators inch closer on prisons and education

prison bars
Prison bars illustration by Rawf8 via iStock for WMNF News.

By Jim Turner, Dara Kam and Ryan Dailey ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Negotiations on a new state budget started to move into the next phase Wednesday, with unresolved issues being sent to House and Senate budget chiefs.

Conference committees made progress on issues such as prisons, education and economic development, but some key health and human services issues reached an impasse Wednesday morning.

A conference committee sent the unresolved health and human services issues to Senate Appropriations Chair Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, and House Appropriations Chair Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, for further negotiations. Unresolved issues in other areas of the budget also were expected to go to Broxson and Leek by the end of Wednesday.

A budget for the 2024-2025 fiscal year, which will start July 1, needs to be finished Tuesday for the legislative session to end as scheduled on March 8. That is because of a required 72-hour “cooling off” period before lawmakers can vote on the budget.

House Health Care Appropriations Chair Rep. Sam Garrison, R-Fleming Island, said the health- and human-services conference committee broke off talks, at least in part because the Senate did not make an offer about funding lawmaker-proposed projects.

“Without the member projects on the Senate side, you can’t negotiate against yourself,” Garrison said. “I do mean that everything is relative. So, in order to have a complete holistic negotiation process, we’ve got to be able to have everything in play.”

Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chair Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said the Senate was still working on a project list. She said “trying to balance things out is very difficult,” with a limited amount of money allocated to health and human services.

In addition to funding for projects, Garrison said unresolved issues included such things as budget fine print known as “proviso language” and “implementing” and “conforming” bills needed to carry out the health and human services budget.

Harrell said the conference committee reached an agreement on many issues, including providing $80 million for a cancer innovation fund established in 2023 and linked to First Lady Casey DeSantis.

House and Senate budget leaders Wednesday afternoon appeared close to finalizing a spending plan for the state prison system that includes providing about $100 million for repairing Florida’s aging correctional institutions and building new housing units at prisons.

The Senate originally proposed issuing bonds and spending $100 million annually over the next 30 years, for a total of $3 billion, to build prisons and repair infrastructure.

House leaders, however, balked at taking on debt for new prisons.

“We just didn’t have an appetite to bond,” House Justice Appropriations Chair Chuck Brannan, R-Macclenny, told reporters Wednesday afternoon, after meeting briefly with his Senate counterpart, Fleming Island Republican Jennifer Bradley.

Bradley, chair of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, said the House and Senate were “very, very close” to finalizing an agreement.

Under the proposal, total spending on the state Department of Corrections — which houses roughly 90,000 inmates — would top $3.5 billion in the 2024-2025 fiscal year.

In addition, lawmakers plan to steer another $20 million to pay for Florida National Guard members assigned to state prisons by Gov. Ron DeSantis to help address chronic staffing shortages. About 300 guard troops are helping fill the vacancy gap throughout the state prison system.

House Infrastructure & Tourism Appropriations Chair Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, said money for the National Guard members is a “technical” budget item, “intended to make sure they actually have funds, at least until the end of December.”

The Department of Corrections has taken a number of steps over the past few years to address high turnover and staff shortages, such as increasing salaries for correctional officers and offering hiring and retention bonuses.

The agency, however, is on track to spend about $100 million in overtime pay during the current fiscal year, according to Brannan’s staff.

“Everything we’ve done for the past two years has tried to address” the staffing issue, Brannan told reporters Wednesday.

“We’re headed in the right direction. We’ve got to keep an eye on that trajectory, going that way and then that will take care of itself, if we can get those positions filled. They’ve turned a corner and we’re gonna keep it going that way,” he said.

In the education area of the budget, negotiators remained very close on the main funding source for public schools known as the Florida Education Finance Program, or FEFP. The House and Senate have both proposed spending $28.4 billion, with the Senate proposing $24,641 more than the House.

“While we only have two slight differences in our FEFP, the House is maintaining its position,” House PreK-12 Appropriations Chair Josie Tomkow, R-Polk City, said.

The House and Senate also remain $1.3 million apart on a plan to increase funding for teacher pay, with the House proposing a $201.8 boost and the Senate pitching a $200.5 million increase.

In higher education, negotiators agreed to nearly $1.7 billion in funding for the state college system, keeping operating money for the network of 28 colleges largely level.

The House and Senate also have agreed on $100 million for what are known as “preeminent” universities, a designation that is based on schools meeting certain performance benchmarks. Also negotiators agreed on $100 million for recruiting and retaining full-time faculty members at universities that do not have a preeminent label.

In other conference committees, the House agreed to a Senate proposal of spending $17 million to continue a program that offers $5,000 bonuses for new law-enforcement recruits and to attract officers from other states.

Meanwhile, the House increased its proposal from $42 million to $56 million to replenish the Job Growth Grant Fund, a pool of economic development money that the governor can use for infrastructure and job-training programs. The Senate proposed $75 million for the fund, while Gov. Ron DeSantis requested $100 million.

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