HOUSE, SENATE SIGN OFF ON RECORD STATE SPENDING PLANS

Democrats expressed hope that Republican leaders will increase money for land preservation, boost art funding and avoid the House’s planned sweep of affordable-housing trust funds before joining their Republican counterparts Thursday as both chambers unanimously passed their versions of the state budget.

With the House’s proposed budget about $1.4 billion less than the Senate’s spending plan, Thursday’s unanimous votes will kick off negotiations between the two chambers on the record spending proposals.

Despite differences over funding and policy in areas such as tourism marketing, education, health care and the environment, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley said the gap isn’t as wide as its appears.

“If you really do a deep dive on the two budgets and you look at the difference in GR (general revenue) spending, which is a pretty good guide for what the differences look like, it's a lot closer than perhaps it appears,” Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, told reporters Thursday afternoon.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, also expressed optimism that the two chambers won’t struggle to find common ground, as was the case last year.

“Our relationship with the Senate this year is even better than it was last year,” Oliva said, pointing to his relationship with Senate President Bill Galvano.

“President Galvano and I are legitimate friends and we know that there are things that are important to one another and we know that not everything can be your top priority or your second top priority. But he understands that the House is a policy champion. I mean, we like to fix things via policy and so there's a lot out there right now. But it's only week five. The fun doesn't start ‘til next week,” Oliva said.

House and Senate negotiators will square off in conference committees to work on passing a final budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which starts July 1, before the legislative session ends on March 13.

Meanwhile, most of Thursday’s floor discussions on the spending plans came from Democrats who both praised the proposals --- $91.37 billion in the House and $92.83 in the Senate --- and held out hope that more money could be steered to schools, arts and culture, and land preservation.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he is concerned about funding for the arts and hopes the funding will improve in conference negotiations. He also discussed criminal-justice reform and substance-abuse treatment.

Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota, said there are lots of good things in the House budget, but more work is needed as negotiations begin between the two chambers.

She highlighted a need for more funding for mental health and affordable housing as well as a boost to the House’s $20 million for Florida Forever.

“I think this is the time, given the water quality crisis that we’ve experienced in Florida, given the amount of development and amount of people moving to Florida,” Good said of the need to spend more on the Florida Forever program.  “It also presents an opportunity to make sure we preserve land for future generations.”

The Senate has proposed $125 million for Florida Forever.

The Senate has also put up $50 million for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism-marketing agency that Oliva and other House leaders aren’t funding. House leaders dismiss the argument that previous increases in state marketing were behind record tourism numbers.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, touched on the House's investment in correctional officers and the state National Guard. She also called the environmental budget “robust,” while adding her voice to those pitching for more Florida Forever dollars and affordable housing.

“I look forward to the conferencing process to see what the final numbers will look like,” Eskamani said. “I want to see an increase in salary for our teachers and all state workers. And I also want to make sure our veteran teachers are supported alongside support staff like mental health counselors, like bus drivers, like custodians.”

The House is recommending $50 million to give pay raises to corrections officers. The plan would provide eligible officers a $1,800 pay hike.
 
Under the Senate proposal, corrections officers would see a 3-percent salary increase and a bonus based on the amount of time they have worked for the Florida Department of Corrections. The bonuses range from $500 for employees with less than 2 years of service to $2,500 for officers with 5 years or more of experience.

The Senate budget seeks a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise for all state employees, while the House would add $1,800 to the annual pay of state workers who earn less than $50,000 a year.

The Senate would fully fund affordable-housing programs at $387 million, while the House would spend $147 million and “sweep” other affordable-housing trust fund money to balance the rest of the budget.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has made a top priority of setting a minimum salary of $47,500 for public-school teachers, a plan that would cost $602 million. He also wants to spend $300 million on a new bonus program for teachers and principals, with a focus on educators who work in schools in low-income areas.

The Senate wants to spend $500 million to raise teacher salaries, while the House is offering $650 million. Neither chamber has proposed money for bonuses.