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Senate sends $82.4 billion budget bill to the House in extended session

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The Senate approved an $82.4 billion state budget during legislative overtime Monday, including a raft of conforming bills implementing House and Senate priorities on matters including public schools, colleges, and universities.

The 34-0 vote sent the budget bill to the House.

The final Senate vote came at about 8:30 p.m. without debate, following a day spent in extensive debate over the budget package. The chamber sent the usual implementing bill over by the same margin, then paused to give the House time to act.

Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala warned earlier in the day that failure to adopt any of those bills could sink the entire budget.

“From a real-life perspective, if we fail to adopt one of the priorities of the other House, that’s going to have an impact on the whole process, and probably the budget as a whole. You know that as well as I do,” he said.

Nevertheless, there were bipartisan protests by senators who warned of the potential to sink bad policy into these must-pass bills without scrutiny by substantive committees.

“It’s easy for us to say, well, there’s good policy in here and so that’s why we should do it,” Democrat Jeff Clemens argued. “Well, sometimes there’s bad policy in conforming bills, and we don’t get a chance to amend that here. All we can do is vote yes or no.”

The Senate went into recess shortly after 4:30 p.m. Still on the agenda at that stage was SB 2500, the Appropriations Act, and SB 7069, a K-12 education package.

There were protests about tradeoffs. Sen. Bill Montford asked a series of questions about language providing defined contribution retirement plans to state workers, which the Senate agreed to in exchange for state workers raises.

“If we want the pay raise … we had to bite the insurance and the pension changes,” Latvala finally told Montford. “If you don’t think they’re worth the pay raise, vote against the bill.”

Thirteen senators took that advice, against 24 who voted in favor of that conforming bill.

The budget act and conforming bills contain the first across-the-board salary increase for state workers in 11 years — with the biggest increase for people paid $40,000 per year and less. It would steer extra money to corrections officers and other positions plagued by high turnover.

The budget for PreK-12 would grow by $241 million but, because Florida will have 24,000 more students, the base per-student allocation would actually shrink by $27. But there’s $140 million for a Schools of Hope program, to lure charter schools to replace failing public schools, and $234 million for the Best and Brightest bonuses.

In companion legislation, the Legislature would require state universities to charge students per semester, so they could load up on courses and perhaps graduate sooner. There would be no tuition increases, but there would be increases in aid and scholarships.

Support foundations would open more of their books to public scrutiny. State colleges would get a new governing structure and limits on upper level enrollment.

The state would spend $3.6 billion for agriculture and environmental programs. Some $13.3 million is for beach recovery and $39.9 million for beach projects, on top of the $10 million base budget. But the offer zeroed out funding for land acquisition under the Florida Forever program — sacrificed for a $1.2 billion rainy day fund.

“There’s nobody in this chamber that regrets that more than I do,” Latvala said. “But when you put that up against all that we did for the environment … we’ve had quite a year.”

The budget would allow the state to get cracking on Senate President Joe Negron’s $1.5 billion Lake Okeechobee plan, designed to stop discharges of toxic algae-infused overflow into streams and estuaries to the east and west by storing 78 billion gallons of water in a reservoir to the south, with treatment and ultimate discharge into the Everglades and Florida Bay.

Total spending on the Everglades next year would total $274 million.

Plans for substantial cuts to hospitals were mitigated by a Trump administration offer of as much as $1.5 billion for charity care — although the conditions on that aid would restrict the amount to about $1 billion, according to Anitere Flores, who chairs the relevant Appropriations subcommittee.

The legislation would allow the county clerks of the courts to keep $10.4 million in court fees they otherwise would send to the Legislature, plus another $11.7 million from the state for jury-related costs.

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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