By Jim Turner, Ana Ceballos, Christine Sexton The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday slashed $1 billion before signing a $92.2 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year, as he tries to keep lawmakers from having to come back to Tallahassee ahead of the November elections to address revenue shortfalls caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to vetoing more than 500 spending proposals by lawmakers, DeSantis pointed to other steps he and lawmakers have taken to shore up the state’s finances. That included bolstering reserves and looking to money from a federal stimulus law known as the CARES Act.
“We have different reserves and then we also have federal CARES Act dollars, so I’m convinced that we’ll be able to weather the storm and do it right,” DeSantis said.
Among the vetoes were $20 million for the state’s Job Growth Grant Fund, an economic-development program; $21 million for a new 2nd District Court of Appeal courthouse in the Tampa Bay area; $134.6 million for a school-recognition program; and more than $140.5 million in health- and human-services spending.
He also vetoed $264 million worth of legislative “member” projects, which generally are earmarks for lawmakers’ districts. Examples of the vetoes included $250,000 to digitize archives at the Harry S. Truman Little White House in Key West; $250,000 to reduce cold cases at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office; and $200,000 to harden the Fort Walton Beach Recreation Center.
The budget will take effect Wednesday with the start of the state’s 2020-2021 fiscal year. Lawmakers passed their $93.2 billion version in March, as the coronavirus began to force businesses to shut down or dramatically scale back — and caused the state to start losing expected tax revenues.
While DeSantis slashed many areas of the budget, he also approved high-profile issues, including $500 million to increase teacher pay, $625 million for the Everglades and other water-related projects and $100 million for the Florida Forever conservation program. He also approved 3 percent pay raises for state workers.
The governor’s office said per-student funding in public schools during the upcoming year will be $7,793, an increase of $137 per student. The budget does not include tuition increases for state college and university students.
House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said DeSantis’ vetoes put “Florida on solid ground to be fiscally prepared to participate in an economic recovery.”
“The governor knows that we cannot tax and spend our way out of recession,” Oliva said in a prepared statement. “Today’s reality is a stark reminder that in times of plenty, saving for a rainy day is the only responsible use of the excess.”
But Rep. Ben Diamond, a St. Petersburg Democrat and member of the House Appropriations Committee, questioned the governor’s use of CARES Act dollars to patch the budget without legislative approval.
“As this crisis worsens and further threatens the lives and livelihoods of Floridians, the Legislature has an important role to play in responding to it. So far, we have been sitting on the sidelines,” Diamond wrote to Oliva and Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, on Monday. “We should be meeting to rework our budget priorities in the face of this crisis. We should be doing this work in an open, transparent and bipartisan way.”
Health and human services make up the largest chunk of the state budget, and DeSantis vetoed tens of millions of dollars that had been earmarked for programs for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
For instance, he vetoed $58.4 million lawmakers had approved to increase the rates paid to providers who work with people with disabilities in the state’s “iBudget” program. The iBudget program is designed to keep people with developmental and intellectual disabilities out of institutions by providing community-based services that enable them to live at home.
Additionally, DeSantis vetoed $38.4 million that would have been used to increase Medicaid rates to providers who care for people with disabilities who live in institutions.
Education is the second-largest part of the state budget, and DeSantis was able to salvage one of his top priorities of the legislative session — money to raise teacher pay. He signed legislation (HB 641) last week that set the framework for boosting the minimum salaries of classroom teachers to at least $47,500 and giving raises to veteran teachers.
A number of education initiatives, however, got vetoed Monday.
That included $15 million for the “Universities of Distinction” program, designed to support institutions by providing access to funds beyond the base money allocated to universities each year by the Legislature. Such funds could help universities do such things as recruit faculty members.
“It was kind of a new program,” DeSantis said. “Not the worst idea in the world, but now is not the time to do it.”
DeSantis also decided to reappropriate $41.5 million in unused funds from the school “guardian” program, which pays for training school employees to carry guns on campuses.
The program was created in response to the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, and lawmakers set aside $67 million to run the program. But many school districts during the past two years have decided against taking part and have let millions of dollars go unspent.
“For the last two years, this money could have been spent making our schools safer, but instead it was left unused on a program that is unpopular and creates danger for staff and students,” Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, told The News Service of Florida on Monday.
DeSantis on Monday also approved funding to try to address longstanding problems with staff turnover and vacancies in the state prison system.
The governor approved a $54 million retention-pay plan for correctional and probation officers, as well as a $17.5 million pilot program to move some officers from 12-hour shifts to 8.5-hour work days in an effort to reduce worker fatigue.
Under the retention plan, correctional and probation officers will get bonuses ranging from $500 to $2,500, depending on how long they have worked for the Department of Corrections, starting at two years of service.
Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, told the News Service that the bonuses will improve morale among workers even more so because they will go along with the across-the-board salary increases for state employees.
However, Puckett said the police union remains skeptical of the pilot program on work hours because of a lack of negotiations with prison officials.
The wrangling over the work hours is part of an ongoing court dispute between the corrections department and the union, stemming from shift reductions initiated in 2018 by former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration.
“When it comes to this particular issue, the department has not played by the rules at all,” Puckett said.
A big cut to the corrections budget involved $28 million that state lawmakers had set aside for treatment of inmates with hepatitis C, a contagious liver disease that can be fatal.
The budget item is part of a long-running legal battle over the state’s treatment and screening of prisoners for hepatitis C. The battle continues in a federal appeals court.
A federal judge last year ordered the Department of Corrections to provide a costly type of treatment to all inmates with the disease, but the agency disputes that the treatment is necessary for inmates in the early stages of the disease.
“Now is not the time to cut funding for a chronic and widespread infectious disease like hepatitis C,” Florida Justice Institute Executive Director Dante Trevisani, who represents inmates in the case, told the News Service on Monday.