House, Senate budgets differ on stimulus money

The House factors in federal relief funds, the Senate doesn't.

Florida House and Senate committees moved forward Wednesday with budget proposals that stand $2 billion apart and take different approaches to $10 billion in federal stimulus money headed to state government.

The House’s $97 billion proposal includes tapping into the federal money for a series of expenses, including paying for long-delayed building maintenance, upgrading the state’s unemployment system and creating a new emergency reserve in the governor’s office.

The Senate, with a $95 billion package (SPB 2500), decided to hold off on factoring in the anticipated influx of stimulus cash. Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel said specific details on the federal funding remain unclear.

“I’m hopeful that as more information becomes known the source of funding will be available to us later in session,” Stargel said.

Votes on the budget proposals Wednesday by the Senate Appropriations Committee and the House Appropriations Committee were initial steps as leaders prepare to negotiate a final spending plan for the fiscal year that will start July 1. Lawmakers are expected to see an increase in available cash Tuesday when state economists revise general revenue estimates.

House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull said after his committee’s meeting he anticipates improved budget numbers, as monthly revenue collections have outpaced a forecast.

“We’ll see what the (estimating) conference shows on the 6th, next week, and then obviously we’ll be able to reevaluate the budget during conference (negotiations),” Trumbull said.

The House proposal (PCB APC 21-01), backed by Trumbull’s committee in a 26-4 vote, would use $3.5 billion of the stimulus money for deferred maintenance needs at state and school facilities. Among other things, it would provide $2 billion to offset revenue losses in the state transportation trust fund; provide $1 billion to fund a new Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund in the governor’s office; and provide $630 million for environmental programs that include beach renourishment, resiliency, and septic-to-sewer conversions.

The House plan also includes a stimulus-infused $2.2 billion boost to reserves.

“We need healthy reserves to protect the state’s financial outlook to cover continuing costs for pandemic response and to ensure we have enough money available for hurricane season, which unfortunately starts in just two months,” Trumbull said.

Rep. Ben Diamond said the House plan is missing opportunities to do more to help Floridians with the stimulus money. He pointed to parts of the budget that, for example, include cuts for health-care programs and higher education.

One issue in funding public schools involves a forecast 48,000-student decrease in students because of the coronavirus pandemic. House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Randy Fine said the House budget would set aside $334 million in case more students than predicted return to class next year.

“We’re cognizant of the fact that there may be more students coming back than the school districts and the state have predicted,” Fine said.

The Senate proposal would set aside $350 million for those student enrollment counts.

The House budget proposal would cut higher education funding by 7 percent, which Rep. Rene Plasencia said is not a “slash and burn” approach.

“There are no reductions to need-based financial aid,” said Plasencia, who chairs the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee. “There are no reductions to Bright Futures tuition and fee awards. There are no tuition increases, and there’s no current-year reductions to colleges or universities.”

The House is looking to end $600 textbook stipends available annually to recipients of Bright Futures scholarships, accounting for a $37.5 million reduction in spending.

“We’ve made great strides in textbook affordability in recent years. And … we’re focusing on ‘open access’ textbooks that can be utilized by all students, not just a select few,” Plasencia said.

Rep. James Bush expressed concern that new performance-related requirements for a financial-aid program known as Effective Access to Student Education, or EASE, could hurt students. The program provides aid to students who attend private colleges and universities, and the House would add requirements related to schools’ graduation, retention and job-placement rates.

“The $2,800 that students receive now is really not a lot, but they depend on that to be able to survive and to stay in school,” Bush said.

The House plan would offer $665.8 million for Everglades restoration and water projects and $100 million for the Florida Forever land preservation program. The Senate is proposing $786 million for the Everglades and $50 million for Florida Forever.

The House and Senate would maintain funding for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism-marketing arm, at $50 million.

Along with the budget proposals, the House and Senate committees advanced several bills, including similar proposals (HB 5401 and SPB 2512) that would change the distribution of a portion of documentary-stamp taxes currently targeted affordable housing. Under the proposals, two-thirds of that money would be shifted to address the effects of sea-level rise and to upgrade sewage treatment.

The money currently is directed toward affordable-housing programs through what is known as the Sadowski Trust Fund. That trust fund is an annual target of lawmakers who divert — or “sweep” — money to help pay for programs not related to affordable housing.

Affordable housing, which has averaged about $160 million a year the past five years, would get $141.9 million next fiscal year outside of additional stimulus funding.

Affordable-housing advocates criticized the proposal to shift money to other uses, but the proposal is part of an agreement between House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson.


Republished with permission from The News Service of Florida

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