Florida lawmakers poised to approve a record $93.2 billion budget

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The Florida Legislature over the weekend preliminarily approved a record $93.2 billion budget for the third-largest state in the country.

Final approval of the spending plan will require that lawmakers fly back to the capital Thursday because there’s no provision in law that allows remote voting, even in a pandemic.

Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, at the podium, said the state’s constitution doesn’t allow the Legislature to vote remotely.

The 90-day legislative session was scheduled to end Friday, but it was extended a week to take final action on the budget for fiscal 2021. After agreeing to the final amount Sunday, the session adjourned until Thursday.

Several lawmakers said they were worried about returning to Tallahassee amid the state’s growing number of COVID-19 cases.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the state’s constitution doesn’t allow the Legislature to vote remotely.

“This public health emergency certainly provides reason to explore changes to our laws that may allow such an option in the future,” he said. “However, as it relates to this vote in the midst of a pandemic, I am not willing to risk a legal challenge that could prevent our budget from being promptly enacted.”

The new spending plan, which exceeds the current budget by about $2.2 billion, includes $25.1 million to address the COVID-19 outbreak, an amount requested by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The funding won’t be available until the budget goes into effect July 1.

In the meantime, DeSantis has access to reserves in the current budget for emergency funding.

Reserves will total $3.8 billion in the new budget. Lawmakers added $300 million by decreasing some tax cuts they had planned to approve.

The reserves can also provide a source of funding for state programs if sales tax collections decrease significantly because of the disruptions caused by the highly contagious novel coronavirus, and the closing of theme parks, restaurants and other businesses as well as the cancellation of sporting and other large events.

State sales tax collections are the largest funding source for Florida’s budget. The state’s top economist, Amy Baker, couldn’t immediately be reached Monday to comment on whether meetings have been scheduled to discuss how the virus’s impacts might affect the budget.

The amount of bonds approved in the upcoming budget wasn’t available Monday. Lawmakers typically align financing decisions with the governor, who had recommended borrowing $1.24 billion mostly to finance transportation projects.

Although lawmakers have placed some limitations on the number of people who can attend Thursday's final budget debate, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that events with 50 or more people be postponed for eight weeks.

The Florida House has 120 members, while the Senate has 40 members.

Florida also planned to go ahead with Tuesday’s presidential primary, although election offices across the state reported that many poll workers had backed out. That led to some polls being consolidated and moved.

Arizona, Illinois, and Ohio are also holding primaries Tuesday, while Louisiana and Georgia have postponed theirs.

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