By Jim Saunders, Ryan Dailey and Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers passed a record $112.1 billion budget Monday to end a legislative session dominated by fierce debates about issues such as education, abortion and immigration.
Only three lawmakers voted against the election-year spending plan, which was pumped up by federal stimulus money and higher-than-expected state tax collections. It funnels money to myriad issues, including higher funding for public schools and pay raises for state employees, and is a 10.4 percent increase from a budget approved for the current year.
“This is a good budget,” House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, said before the House voted 105-3 to approve the budget (HB 5001). “It’s a great budget for Florida and its long-term success. This budget has record funding for many important programs and creates record reserves to position our state to weather future storms.”
The session was originally scheduled to end Friday, but a delay in finalizing the budget forced lawmakers to extend until Monday. The session adjourned at 1:03 p.m., after votes on the budget and a series of related bills.
Gov. Ron DeSantis joined lawmakers during a “sine die” gathering on the Capitol’s fourth floor that included a traditional hanky drop marking the end of the session.
DeSantis touted Florida as the “best law and order state in the entire country,” pointing to issues such as bonuses that will go to first responders and incentives to try to attract more law-enforcement officers from other states.
He also alluded to some highly controversial issues, such as a bill that includes preventing instruction in early school grades about sexual orientation and gender identity — a measure that critics labeled the “don’t say gay” bill.
“As the parent of three kids that are age 5 and under, thank you for letting me and my wife be able to send our kids to kindergarten without them being sexualized,” said DeSantis, whose comments at the ceremony were briefly interrupted by a protester who rained fake $100 bills on the gathering of lawmakers and onlookers.
While almost all Democrats voted for the budget, they blasted Republicans for focusing during the session on issues designed to appeal to the Republican base. Among other things, lawmakers passed measures to prevent abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, increase immigration enforcement and create a new state office to investigate alleged election irregularities.
“This was a pure and simple culture war that we saw here,” House Minority Leader Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach said. “So much emphasis being placed on things that really have little to no impact on people’s everyday lives. And, really, what we’re looking at is (an) erasure of certain communities. A demonizing and an otherizing of other communities. And, really, I’d have to say it’s been the most partisan and culturally driven session that I’ve ever been a part of, and that is not a good thing.”
Democrats said the GOP-dominated Legislature did not address issues such as the troubled property-insurance system, as homeowners face soaring premiums and lose policies.
“People are concerned about workforce housing and the insurance crisis,” Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, said. “They have to make decisions about whether (to put) dinner on the table, paying for gas or getting to work on time, but we’re up here fighting culture wars.”
But Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said lawmakers got a lot done amid the controversies.
“I think when everyone settles down, looks at what we got accomplished, those things will still be a discussion. But the overall product delivered in session was a very accomplished session,” said Stargel, who sponsored the abortion limit along with being the Senate’s chief budget writer. “We got a ton done. A lot of the rhetoric took a lot of priority. But I think after that’s all settled, it will have been a great year.”
The Senate voted 33-0 to pass the budget, while the House backed it in a 105-3 vote. The dissenters were Rep. Michael Grieco, D-Miami Beach, Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami, and Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills.
DeSantis has line-item veto power, with the budget slated to take effect July 1.
The budget includes a nearly $385 increase in per-student funding in the Florida Education Finance Program, the main formula for distributing money to public schools. Also, it includes increased money to continue an effort to boost minimum teacher salaries to $47,500.
Other areas of the budget include a 5.38 percent across-the-board pay hike for state workers, money to provide a $15 minimum wage for workers at nursing homes and other Medicaid providers and $650 million to build a new prison.
Meanwhile, a tax package, valued at $658 million, includes suspending state gas taxes for one month in October. Also, it includes a series of sales-tax “holidays,” such as for back-to-school shoppers and for people buying supplies in advance of hurricane season.
Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, said when people look back at the session, they will see substantial tax cuts, increased parental choice and improvements to the environment, which are popular issues with his constituents.
“We spent more on clean water projects this session than we ever have,” Rodrigues said. “The number one issue in my district, by the way, is water quality. I can go back and show them great work we’ve done.”