Florida House, Senate Budgets Fast-Tracked for Floor Debate Next Week

Florida State Capitol / Wikimedia Commons
Florida State Capitol / Wikimedia Commons

The House and Senate could vote as soon as next week on their chamber’s proposed fiscal year 2020 spending plans after appropriations committees Wednesday overwhelmingly approved them.

The House Appropriations Committee green-lighted its proposed 420-page General Appropriations Act, which will eventually be adopted as House Bill 5001, while the 424-page, nearly 150-time amended Senate Bill 2500 was cleared by the Senate Appropriations Committee in a 21-0 vote.

By fast-tracking the wholes before debating their parts, chambers are positioning their priorities to best survive the quibbles to come as lawmakers compete in committees to fund favored priorities within spending guidelines established by the omnibus budget packages.

The House’s proposed plan is $89.9 billion. The Senate is seeking $90.3 billion, about $400 million, or a half-percent, more.

Both are higher than the $88.7 billion budget for the current fiscal year but less than the $91.3 billion Gov. Ron DeSantis is seeking in his budget request for fiscal year 2020, which begins July 1.

Ultimately, all three will converge in House-Senate conference committees convened to iron out differences. Lawmakers have until midnight May 3, when the session concludes.

"This is obviously the first major step," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Travis Cummings, R-Orange Park.

"Nothing we pass will be ironclad," assured Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater. "What we pass out will not be set in stone and will be subject to some changes."

Among primary differences in the two plans is the Senate’s $22.2 billion education budget request is about $600,000 more than the House’s proposal.

More than $500,000 of that difference is in Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) allocations.

The Senate FEFP plan would increase per-student funding by 4.71 percent, or $1.1 billion, translating into about $350 more per student. The House FEFP plan would increase per-student funding by 2.75 percent, or $579.3 million, about $167 more for each student.

DeSantis’ $21.6 billion education request includes a $224 per-student increase in the FEFP.

Other differences include a $30 million variation in funding school mental health services, Hurricane Michael recovery, affordable housing, environmental spending and whether or not to fund Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotion agency.

DeSantis has requested full funding of $76 million for Visit Florida. The Senate’s budget proposal allocates $50 million for the agency. The House earmarks $19 million – enough to fund Visit Florida only until Oct. 1.

Visit Florida President Dana Young, a former Republican lawmaker, was among those who urged the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday to grant the agency its full $76 million as DeSantis has requested rather than allow the agency to shut its doors come fall.

"We do great work and you would miss us," Young said. "You've heard the term 'don't eat the seed corn'? We are the seed corn."

Several lawmakers agreed it may not be a good idea to defund the state’s tourism agency when tourism is the state’s biggest industry.

"I do think we are playing a little bit with fire when we do that," said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Hollywood.

Young repeated her plea later Wednesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee, claiming its proposed $50 million allocation would be insufficient and that "$76 million is the sweet spot."

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the differences between the overall plans are "manageable" and even the sharp contrasts in the specifics, such as with Visit Florida, will be remedied in due course.

"I’ve seen the spread a lot greater than it is now," Bradley said. "I’m very confident that we’re going to have a budget that everybody can be comfortable with and meets everybody’s priorities."