House members inspect Gov. DeSantis’ budget and pandemic spending
Image via AP.

Republicans joined the minority party in asking tough questions.

House members scrutinized Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ budget proposal and application of federal pandemic aid Wednesday, probing deeper than senators did the day prior.

The Governor’s policy and budget director, Chris Spencer, detailed the proposed $96.6 billion budget and $78.8 billion in federal pandemic relief during a House Appropriations Committee meeting, after giving the same presentation to senators on Tuesday.

While mainly Democrats questioned Spencer during the Senate committee meeting Tuesday, Republicans joined the minority in prying the Governor’s policy director for details.

Palm Harbor Republican Rep. Randy Fine counted $2.5 billion in aid from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund diverted to school districts plus an additional $700 million in federal funds. With a $2.8 billion expected from the second CARES Act, he noted that school districts are receiving 20% to 30% more than what lawmakers assigned them in March.

Fine’s son stayed home for the end of the 2019-20 school year, watched school remotely, and is now back in class. The Representative wanted to know why school districts need the additional $5 billion, if not for laptops and internet access.

He also pressed Spencer on the Governor’s recommendation to budget school attendance as a constant when thousands of students have been unaccounted for during the pandemic. His committee, the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, would pursue that in future meetings, he said.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Jay Trumbull asked why the Governor’s budget did not address long-term solutions to general revenue, noting that DeSantis’ proposal outspends general revenue by $800 million.

“Even by our calculations, very conservative budgeting over the next three fiscal years, we can’t seem to solve this structural problem,” the Panama City Republican said.

Spencer replied that his office is confident general revenue will return to normal in the 2022-23 fiscal year.

Legislative leaders have discussed ways to increase state revenue, including by raising tuition at state colleges and enforcing online sales taxes. However, DeSantis’ proposal makes no call to raise revenues.

On Thursday, he spoke against raising taxes when asked about the online sales tax proposal, but lawmakers have argued their goal with online sales taxes is not a tax increase, rather an enforcement issue.

Spencer told Florida Politics he has not discussed with the Governor his stance on online sales tax enforcement.

St. Petersburg Democratic Rep. Ben Diamond revived Democrats’ complaints that DeSantis’ office didn’t consult the Legislature on spending, a power typically reserved for lawmakers. However, legislative leaders were content to defer to the Governor, who was elected in part to oversee emergencies.

“Where I’m frustrated is the fact that I don’t feel that the Appropriations Committee and the Legislature was really involved in any meaningful way in these decisions,” Diamond said.

Spencer said the Governor, as a former Congressman, respects the Legislature’s constitutional responsibility to manage the state’s finances. DeSantis views paying for the response as a collaborative process, he said.

“During the emergency response to the public health emergency, a lot of decisions were made to respond in a timely manner,” Spencer added.

The $78.8 billion in total federal aid is split between $16.1 billion from the CARES Act and $62.7 billion for economic relief. Of that sum, the Governor’s Office had discretion on how to spend $5.9 billion in the Coronavirus Relief Fund.

Additionally, $2.5 billion went directly from the federal government to local municipalities with more than 500,000 residents.

Of the $5.9 billion sent to the state treasury, the state directed $1.3 billion to local governments serving fewer than 500,000 residents. The remaining $4.7 billion went to state agencies and services. The $2.5 billion to the Department of Education was the largest item from the Coronavirus Relief Fund.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.

One comment

  • Sonja Fitch

    February 15, 2021 at 6:49 am

    Omg real Republicans asking real questions! Love it.

Comments are closed.


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