Florida Legislature approves $89 billion budget
By GARY FINEOUT
Mar. 11, 2018
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Legislature ended its annual session Sunday after approving roughly $89 billion in spending and a modest tax cut package that included two tax holidays as well as tax breaks for businesses harmed by Hurricane Irma.
The 60-day session was supposed to end last week, but legislators got bogged down during budget negotiations while they spent hours debating and working on a comprehensive gun and school safety. That legislation was drawn up in the aftermath of the shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that claimed 17 lives.
That tragedy caused legislators to pivot away from normal budget tug-of-wars over money for the environment, charter schools and health care programs that have dominated recent sessions.
In the end, Republican leaders decided to spend $400 million in direct response to the shooting tragedy, money that will be used to hire additional school resources officers as well as a new mental health program for public schools. But that meant that there wasn't a lot of extra money left over to pay for increases in other day-to-day school operations. School superintendents from the state's largest school districts warned that the new budget could force school districts to make cuts to other programs.
Sen. Rob Bradley, the Senate budget chairman and Fleming Island Republican, defended the approach.
"If we don't protect our kids, what are we here for?" Bradley said. "That's job one. We made unprecedented investments in protecting our children."
The Florida House approved the budget by a 95-12 vote, while the vote in the Senate was 31-5.
Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and a former school superintendent, was among the 'no' votes. He cited the lack of an across-the-board pay raise for state employees and the level of overall money for public schools as reasons why he voted against it.
"School districts are no different from a business or one's own personal finances," Montford said. "The cost of living is going up and that's reflected in everything that's happening to school districts."
Legislators extended their session to Sunday because they were unable to finish work last week. Florida has a 72-hour "cooling off period" to make sure everyone can read the budget before the final vote.
Bradley predicted that the budget will give lawmakers something to boast about when they head out on the campaign trail later this year.
The budget includes $100 million for Florida Forever, the state's environmental land buying program, which has received minimal money since the Great Recession. Legislators also set aside $50 million designed to deal with the state's opioid crisis and they agreed to pay enough money to expand the amount paid to 100,000 college students who are eligible for the state's popular Bright Futures college scholarship program.
"I think this is a budget that has everyone in the chamber's fingerprints on it," Bradley said. "Everybody did their part. It's one we can go home and talk to our fellow Floridians about with pride."
Legislators also decided to set aside about $170 million for a tax cut package that included a three-day back-to-school sales tax holiday in August. They also agreed to a seven-day storm preparation tax holiday. Floridians would be able to buy batteries, portable radios and generators tax-free during a week-long period in June.
The package also includes a slight decrease in the tax charged on commercial rent and a cut in tax charged on fuel used by airlines. Scott proposed his own tax cut package, but legislators either scaled back or ignored the governor's suggestions. Scott wanted a 10-day back to school tax holiday and he also wanted to cut the cost of renewing or getting a driver's license
Associated Press writer Joe Reedy contributed to this report.