Federal money to be key issue in budget talks

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How will the state use the $10 billion it gets from the American Rescue Plan?

Anticipating that federal cash will bolster projects and eyeing more state revenue than previously expected, the Florida House and Senate are ready to move forward with negotiating a budget for the upcoming year.

The House on Thursday voted 104-14 to approve its $97 billion spending plan (HB 5001), a day after the Senate unanimously backed a $95 billion package (SB 2500).

Outside of the usual debates over education, health care, law enforcement and the environment, a big part of the talks will be the use of $10 billion the state is expected to get from the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal stimulus law signed last month by President Joe Biden.

The House has already included money from the federal package in its budget proposal. Senate President Wilton Simpson said he expects the Senate will soon lay out where it believes federal money should go, which he has indicated would include transportation and water projects and cleanup efforts at a former phosphate plant at Piney Point in Manatee County.

“It’ll be those infrastructure deals, the roads, water, some of the governor’s stuff we’ll put in there. Maybe most of it, right,” Simpson told reporters Wednesday. “But we’re not going to surprise you. You’re not going to be surprised when we get our list put out. Obviously, Piney Point was very important to us. We’ll have a substantial amount of money in the budget for Piney Point.”

House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, a Panama City Republican, called the House spending plan a “starting point” for talks that are scheduled to be completed before the Legislative Session ends April 30. The new fiscal year will start July 1.

“We’ve invested in legacy issues, not just for this year, but for years and years to come,” Trumbull said. “Infrastructure, sandy beaches, clean water, safe communities and prosperous futures. The resilience of Floridians has been tested this year through this (COVID-19) pandemic. And I’m very thankful that the members of this body prioritized the long-term health of the state over short-term political expediency.”

The House proposal 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.

“I kind of like how we’re lined up with the Senate,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican, told reporters Thursday. “I think that, you know, the differences are really not that stark.”

But several House Democrats complained, in part, that the proposed budget and accompanying bills don’t increase unemployment benefits for Floridians and would cut hospital funding and limit future affordable-housing funds.

“This is a Hunger Games budget,” said Rep. Omari Hardy, a West Palm Beach Democrat. “This is a budget built on the idea that people who have almost nothing should be made to compete against each other, that their interests should have to compete against each other.”

Democrats also argued legislators should take advantage of federal funding to expand eligibility for Medicaid.

“They call that free money. We’ve made this mistake before with high-speed rail. We said ‘Oh, no. Keep the money. Give it back to the Treasury.’ Well, of course. They don’t do that in Washington. They just turned around and gave our billions to California,” said Rep. Joe Geller, an Aventura Democrat.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has suggested the federal stimulus money could be used on such things as bulking up infrastructure, bolstering efforts to fight rising sea levels and fixing the troubled unemployment system.

The Senate on Wednesday put $3 million into its budget to start cleaning up the Piney Point site in Manatee County. Wastewater on the site is contaminated, and a leak in a reservoir in recent days led to an evacuation of residents and a state of emergency amid fears that a breach could lead a wall to collapse.

Simpson said the work could require up to $200 million, which he hopes can be fully funded this year with federal stimulus money. He also said the state should look at similarly troubled sites and degraded waterways.

Similar funding has not been included in the House plan. Rep. Josie Tomkow, a Polk City Republican who chairs the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, expects the issue will be worked out in conference.

“We have all seen the devastation play out in the media and through conversations with some of our members here,” Tomkow said. “During the conferencing (negotiating) process, that is something that is definitely at the forefront of both chambers and the Governor’s mind and so we will work that out then.”

In addition to the influx of federal money, state economists on Tuesday increased estimates of state general revenue by $2 billion.

As an example of issues that House and Senate negotiators will have to work out is funding for environmental programs and projects.

The House proposes spending $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 water projects and $50 million for Florida Forever.

Among the areas that appear to be in agreement, the House and Senate would maintain funding for VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s tourism-marketing arm, at $50 million.

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