By Jim Turner and Ryan Dailey ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers on Friday finalized a $117 billion budget and an accompanying $1.3 billion tax package to end a legislative session that carried out many of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ priorities.
After adjourning “sine die” — the traditional declaration that marks the end of the annual 60-day session — just before 11 a.m., House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, pointed to a series of key issues that he said lawmakers addressed.
“When we were traveling the state, we were often reminded of the major things on Floridians’ minds,” Renner said during a ceremony in the Capitol’s fourth-floor rotunda between the House and Senate chambers. “Affordability was one of those. The runaway litigation climate was one of those. Having an educated workforce was one of those. And … we had the worst hurricane that we’ve ever faced. On each and every one of those issues, we delivered for the people of Florida.”
Lawmakers began the session in early March after also holding special sessions in December and February. During a news conference Friday, DeSantis touted issues passed by the Legislature.
“I don’t think we’ve seen a six-month stretch that has ever been this productive in the history of our state,” DeSantis said, pointing to legislation on issues such as immigration, expanded school vouchers and changes to higher education. “And I would put us up against any state in the modern history of our country.”
Democrats, however, argued that the regular session was filled with “missed opportunities” and “culture war” legislation that did not address issues such as high insurance rates, skyrocketing rent costs and unaffordable health care.
As an example, Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami, pointed to $12 million that Republicans approved for a program to transport migrants to other states. That came after the DeSantis administration last year flew 49 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
“Instead of spending $12 million to hunt down or profile immigrants legally admitted by federal immigration officials and fly them on a private jet to Martha’s Vineyard, we could expand Medicaid, which unlocks billions in federal dollars to help U.S. citizens in Florida,” Joseph said.
House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said the session was highlighted by DeSantis’ “extremist agenda” on issues such as restricting abortion, allowing people to carry guns without concealed-weapons licenses and expanding a fight with Walt Disney Co.
While Republicans and Democrats battled throughout the session on major policy issues, the House and Senate passed the budget (SB 2500) and tax package (HB 7063) with little opposition.
The tax package includes a series of expanded sales-tax “holidays” on back-to-school items, disaster-preparedness gear and summer events. The package, which DeSantis is expected to sign, also would trim a commercial-lease tax and give tax breaks on purchases ranging from diapers for babies and adults to cattle fencing, firearm-storage devices and gas stoves.
“We have a lot of money to do extra things with. You are seeing that with investments into education, investments into infrastructure, and investments into the environment. With all of those investments, we still have extra money. It’s only right to give that money back to the taxpayers,” Senate Finance and Tax Chairman Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said.
While DeSantis has line-item veto power, the budget passed Friday would be 6.4 percent higher than the spending plan for the current fiscal year, which will end June 30.
The budget and related bills include 5 percent across-the-board pay raises for state employees, with additional increases for certain workers. The plan also would place $10.9 billion into easily accessible reserves.
Lawmakers approved putting a record $26.7 billion into the Florida Education Finance Program, the main funding source for public schools. That represents an increase of $2.2 billion over the current year.
“The school districts are important. That charter schools are important. Private options are important. And we put the money where our mouth is on that,” DeSantis said.
Lawmakers also bolstered a multi-year plan to boost teacher salaries, pumping an additional $252 million into the effort.
The budget also includes $350 million for what has been dubbed the Educational Enrollment Stabilization Program, which would help hedge against unanticipated financial impacts from the expansion of school vouchers.
Lawmakers and DeSantis approved a bill (HB 1) that will make every Florida student eligible to receive vouchers. A Senate summary of the budget said the stabilization money is designed to “protect districts from financial instability as a result of changes” to student enrollment throughout the year.
Lawmakers also provided $107.5 million for DeSantis’ goal of expanding the recently revived Florida State Guard and $3 million for bonuses to build and maintain the Florida National Guard.
The Florida State Guard was initially set up during World War II to replace Florida National Guard members who were deployed abroad. It went inactive in 1947 but remained in state law. As it was revived last year, the state guard was promoted as assisting the Florida National Guard during emergencies.
Also, the budget includes $19.03 million to cover $5,000 hiring and retention bonuses for correctional officers at 15 Department of Corrections facilities with high vacancy rates. Another $8.5 million would go to raise the salaries of correctional officers in privately operated facilities.
In priorities of Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, lawmakers provided $711 million through a bill to help expand workforce housing and approved $200 million to bring bicycle and hiking trails to a planned statewide wildlife corridor, which would get $850 million.
For the environment, $100 million is headed to the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, which supports the purchase of conservation easements to shield agricultural land from development. The budget also would provide $574.6 million for Everglades restoration, $300 million to combat rising seas, $104.9 million to restore the Indian River Lagoon, $50 million for the state’s natural springs, and $12.8 million to fight algae blooms.
— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.