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State Capitol building in Tallahassee, Florida.
House and Senate budget committees Tuesday quickly advanced proposed record spending plans for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, with key differences set to be hammered out after an Easter holiday break.
Among the numerous differences, the House has proposed spending $107.9 million to expand the size of the Florida State Guard, while introducing a proposal that would cut state funding from the tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida.
The Senate wants to spend $80 million on Visit Florida, up $30 million from the current year and doesn’t propose an increase in state guard funding.
“That’s something that our members wanted to wait to discuss in conference (budget negotiations between the House and Senate), and I think it will be worked out in conference,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, said when asked about funding for the state guard and Visit Florida after his committee meeting Tuesday.
The Senate proposal totals $113.7 billion, with the Appropriations Committee approving 200 amendments Tuesday that shifted money within the plan. Among other things, the Senate is proposing a 4.75 percent increase in funds per public-school student, a 3 percent across-the-board pay increase for state employees and $350 million in “recovery” grants that would go to areas slammed by Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole.
With a 6 percent pay increase proposed for state employees, the House package stands at $113 billion, which House Appropriations Chairman Tom Leek called a “conservative spending plan.” The House proposal includes $12.4 billion in reserves, at least in part to serve as a hedge against future natural disasters and an economic downturn.
Leek, R-Ormond Beach, also described the House plan as having something for everyone, as “every (House) member who filed an appropriations project has funding in this budget. Every county that submitted an appropriations project has funding in this budget.”
In the education part of the budget, the House and Senate are aligned in wanting to spend roughly $26.6 billion for the Florida Education Finance Program, the main funding formula for public schools. The total would represent a $2.1 billion increase over the current year.
The House and Senate differ in funding for a massive expansion of Florida’s school-voucher programs (HB 1), which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law on Monday.
The Senate proposal would fund the voucher system at $2.2 billion, covering existing voucher students and new voucher recipients. Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, said the voucher funding would represent an $802 million increase over the current year.
Meanwhile, the House has projected that the voucher plan would cost about $209.6 million. House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairwoman Josie Tomkow, R-Polk City, indicated the chambers are taking different approaches in the calculations.
Without knowing how many students will participate, both chambers set aside reserves to cover any potential voucher-system shortfall. The Senate set aside $350 million, while the House put aside $109.7 million.
“There has been much discussion about, what if we got the fiscal impact of HB 1 wrong?” Tomkow said during the meeting Tuesday, adding that “we don’t think that’s the case.”
The House and Senate are expected to vote on their proposed spending plans and budget-related bills next week. Both would exceed the $109.9 billion budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
After Easter, they will enter negotiations on a final spending plan. A budget is the only bill lawmakers are required to pass each year.
The House and Senate both would match a request by DeSantis to increase the transportation work plan for such things as roads and bridges to $13.4 billion next fiscal year, up from $12.6 billion in the current year.
The Senate proposal also calls for providing $564 in Everglades funding and $542 million for land-acquisition programs.
The House proposal would spend $568 million on the Everglades and $251.2 million for land acquisition, of which $100 million would recur annually.
DeSantis last year reactivated the state guard to assist the Florida National Guard during emergencies. The state guard was 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.
DeSantis has requested that funding for the state guard go from $10 million in the current year to more than $95 million in 2023-2024, with a goal of increasing the size of the mostly volunteer organization from 400 to 1,500 members. The House would go beyond DeSantis’ funding request.
Rep. Mike Giallombardo, R-Cape Coral, said the state guard would be used to augment all state agencies, and “secondarily, they will be helping other states in mutual-aid agreements.”
House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said the guard proposal lacks specifics. She suggested the state instead increase funding for law-enforcement agencies if the goal is to boost assistance during emergencies.
“There doesn't seem like guardrails around what constitutes a threat to public safety,” Driskell said.
Both plans also include $2 million to establish a Memorial Park (HB 5201 and SB 2506) across Monroe Street from the Capitol, as part of a measure that expands the footprint of the Capitol.
Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, was among several House members who voted against the park proposal, as he expressed displeasure that a Holocaust memorial has been delayed since being approved by the Legislature in 2016.
“This memorial has been waited on for seven years and we have been given excuse after excuse after excuse as to why it could not be completed,” Fine said. “Just several weeks ago, Rep. (Mike) Gottlieb and I were told it would be finished by January of 2024, and it would be finished on what we presently consider to be the Capitol.”
Ongoing renovations across the Capitol Complex have been blamed for delays to the Florida Veterans’ Walk of Honor and Florida Veterans’ Memorial Garden, the Florida Holocaust Memorial, the Florida Slavery Memorial, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys Memorial and a Beirut Monument.