Concerns over money for education, affordable housing and the state’s tourism-marketing agency didn’t keep most Democrats from joining the Republican-led House in approving a spending plan.
Only a handful of Democrats dissented when the House approved an $89.9 billion budget for 2019-20 Thursday, one day after the Senate unanimously backed its $90.3 budget. Just eight members voted against the bill.
Lawmakers in both chambers will now begin conferencing, with the goal of sending an agreed-upon budget to Gov. Ron DeSantis before the planned May 3 end to the 2019 Legislative Session.
The Legislature is required to pass a budget each year to submit to the Governor.
House Speaker José Oliva signaled that the House would fare well in conference. Oliva nodded to Appropriations Chair Travis Cummings, who will eventually work through sticking points with Senate Appropriations Chair Rob Bradley.
“The toughest time is still ahead of us, but I think you should all feel as I do: Tremendously confident that Chair Cummings will lead us through all of that,” Oliva said.
During debate on the budget, Democrats encouraged Cummings, an Orange Park Republican, to reconsider parts of the budget.
Cummings appeared willing to continue the conversation. He told Democratic Leader Kionne McGhee that his “handprints are all over this budget.”
Democrats took issue with the House’s plan to fund affordable housing projects. The Senate fully funds the state and local affordable housing pool, known as the Sadowski Trust Fund.
The House, meanwhile, is using $200 million from the estimated $331 million available to fund other parts of the budget. Historically, the Legislature has swept money from the Sadowski Trust.
The House uses $123.6 million from Sadowski for affordable housing. But that money is carved out for local governments hit by Hurricane Michael, which swept through Northwest Florida in October.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, called the geographic restriction on affordable housing money a “false choice.”
“I’m disappointed to see how we have rationed out the Sadowski affordable housing trust funds,” Smith said.
Budget leaders in both chambers have noted a large discrepancy in education funding. The Senate, for example, backed a $1.1 billion increase to the Florida Education Finance Program, an operating funding source for Florida’s 67 school districts. The increase is about $520 million more than what the House has approved.
The House also has moved forward with a series of cuts to higher education that are not in the Senate’s budget.
Rep. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton Democrat, criticized the House and Senate plans to overhaul and increase the state’s teacher-bonus program.
She suggested the state should instead consider teacher raises because it would provide more stability for teachers.
“The teachers are asking for it,” Polsky said. “They have made clear that a raise in salaries is more meaningful than a bonus.”
Rep. Loranne Ausley encouraged her colleagues to perpetuate VISIT FLORIDA. The House wants to only fund the tourism-marketing agency until October.
The Democrat from Tallahassee also suggested the House did more to help the state recover from Hurricane Irma when compared to what it’s doing for Hurricane Michael. She said the House “acted quickly” and “created a task force” after Irma hit the state in 2017.
“I’m simply asking that we do the same for our neighbors to the west,” Ausley said.