Florida governor proposes another record-high state budget

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has proposed a $91.4 billion budget for fiscal 2021 that includes, for the first time in years, borrowing for more than just financing transportation projects.

The total budget is a 0.54% increase over the current $90.9 million spending plan, but actually represents a decrease in per capita spending because of the state's fast population growth, DeSantis said.

If approved, his budget would mark the 10th consecutive year of record spending by the Sunshine State. Lawmakers will use DeSantis’ recommendations to craft their own spending plan during the two-month annual session that starts Jan. 14.

“My budget proposal for fiscal year 2020-2021 builds on our successes of the past year, placing emphasis where it is needed while remaining fiscally responsible to Florida taxpayers,” DeSantis said in a statement. “The budget includes key investments in our K-12 education system, our environment and the well-being of our residents, while recommending over $480 million in savings and over $300 million in tax relief.”

DeSantis, a Republican who took office in January, has recommended a general fund budget that totals $35 billion, an increase of $1.4 billion or 4.3% over the fiscal 2020 budget.

The governor’s budget would place $5.6 billion in reserves, which is more than 6% of the total budget and more than $200 million more than the current year budget. Reserves include $1.4 billion of unallocated general fund revenue, $1.7 billion in the budget stabilization fund, and $2.5 billion in unallocated trust and tobacco fund reserves.

DeSantis is recommending that the state borrow $1.24 billion mostly to finance transportation projects. The budget he approved earlier this year, which also set a spending record, authorized $671.2 million of bonds to be issued for road projects.

Of the total next year, $134.3 million of new 20-year bonds will be issued on behalf of the Department of Corrections to build a new mental health hospital at the Lake Correctional Institution, a state prison for men in Clermont. The facility is being constructed in accordance with a 2016 consent decree between the state and the nonprofit advocacy organization, Disability Rights of Florida.

On Monday during a press conference on the budget, DeSantis said the state’s bond program continues to focus on financing transportation projects, continuing the practice developed during former Gov. Rick Scott's eight years in office.

Given the small increase in the budget, DeSantis was asked if he included bonding for the state’s K-12 school building program, known as PECO, or for the Florida Forever environmental land purchase program, both of which ended under Scott.

DeSantis said his budgets would not include borrowing for PECO or Florida Forever, or issuing bonds for needs that he would consider “pork barrel spending.”

“But I also think that if you look at the situation, we have pretty low debt relative to the size of our economy and money is cheap, and so … if there are certain things that we know as a growing state in terms of infrastructure that you are going to need sometimes it does make sense to do that, to borrow rather than do it on a cash basis,” he said.

Among his top initiatives next year will be new funding programs aimed at attracting and retaining public school teachers. He’s proposed using $600 million to raise the minimum salary for 101,000 full-time classroom teachers to $47,500. Another $300.1 million will go for a new teacher and principal bonus program.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the governor’s budget recommendations reflect “many priorities” held by his chamber, although he wasn’t specific about which ones.

“In the coming days and weeks, we will evaluate the governor’s budget in more detail as we work to prepare a 2020-2021 general appropriations act for consideration in the senate early next year,” he said. “We are closely monitoring the next round of consensus estimating conferences, which will provide important updates in terms of anticipated needs in each area of the budget.”

Galvano also said he is waiting for a new general revenue estimate that will indicate any change in the amount of revenue expected to be available in the next fiscal year.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, called DeSantis’ recommendations “encouraging” and said they would provide a solid base to begin budget discussions.

The governor “is to be commended for a strict adherence to fiscal restraint,” Oliva said. “While the details of his ambitious teacher-pay program remain obscure [and] not a small matter, his commitment to responsible spending is crystal clear.”

DeSantis also announced measures to reduce $480 million in state spending, including the elimination of 141 employee positions. There will be no raises.

While the state workforce will be reduced overall, 30 new people will be hired to increase the number of positions in the state election division’s cybersecurity operations and to create the state’s first threat assessment program to address mass shootings and domestic terrorism within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The governor said he had ordered the elimination of $84.8 million of budgeted earmarks, although he didn’t detail where those cuts will be made. He said he renegotiated contracts and leases saving $119.6 million. Another $54.6 million is expected to be saved from debt service costs presumably through refundings, though his budget wasn’t specific.

As of last week, members of the House of Representatives had filed nearly 500 individual requests for the funding local projects in the fiscal 2021 budget, requests that totaled $643 million, according to the News Service of Florida.

Some requests won’t make it into the budget, and those that do are subject to the governor’s line-item veto power.

DeSantis has also proposed a package of $312 million in tax cuts. Those include an eight-day period when the state sales tax won't be collected on back-to-school supplies; a 10-day state sales tax holiday for people to buy disaster preparedness items; and a reduction in the amount of property tax revenue that local school districts must contribute toward their budgets.

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