With only two weeks left in session, the Florida Legislature has a way to go before reaching a final budget deal by the end of the legislative session.
On Thursday, Florida TaxWatch, the independent, nonpartisan government watchdog group released TaxWatch Budget Watch, a new report revealing the significant differences between the House and Senate spending plans, highlighting many of the areas that need ironing out before May 2.
Budget Watch points out differences between the two proposals in funding, especially for education, water and member projects, as well as tax cuts, identifying them as possible sticking points during budget negotiations.
Both budgets follow Gov. Rick Scott’s commitment for $500 million in tax cuts, but the impact to the new budget will be far less than $500 million. Since parts of the tax cuts are borne by local governments, and others take effect later in the next fiscal year, the expected impact to state revenues for next year is closer to $350 million.
After returning from recess next week, lawmakers expect to begin the process of budget conferencing, the sometimes-difficult negotiation of the differences in funding levels. One suggestion is that they refraining resist the urge to add new projects during the conference process, and focus on only resolving funding discrepancies.
“Budget conferencing is a very important step in the budget process, but it is a time to review and compromise the differences in programs already approved by the state’s elected officials,” said TaxWatch CEO Dominic M. Calabro. “TaxWatch encourages lawmakers not to add new projects that have not been and will not be vetted by the full Legislative body during conference proceedings.”
With additional revenue coming in due to the state’s economic rebound, both budgets are slightly higher, with the House spending $75.3 billion, an increase over the current $1 billion. The Senate, which is slightly more conservative, proposes a budget of $74.9 billion, or $600 million more than current levels.
There are differences in every category, TaxWatch says. House increases funding to Education, Human Services and Environment and Transportation, but the Senate wants to spend more on Criminal Justice, General Government and Courts.
Although TaxWatch commends both chambers on keeping healthy level of reserves — nearly $3 billion — the article also takes issue with trust fund sweeps in both budgets, a practice the group strongly suggests needs further investigation. This year, the House and Senate recommend sweeping $325 million and $198 million respectively from the trust funds, money earmarked for projects, often tied to specific revenue sources. For example, The Senate wants to take $48.3 million from affordable housing trust funds to the General Revenue.
“Sometimes sweeping trust funds into General Revenue is necessary,” said Kurt Wenner, TaxWatch Vice President for Tax Research. “However, the process should include transparency and accountability measures that allow lawmakers to better evaluate the need for breaking the trust.”
TaxWatch provides the 12-page analysis of both budget proposals online.