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Lawmakers into overtime with Florida budget’s late arrival

May 1, 2019

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s legislative session is headed into overtime to pass a $91.1 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Negotiators reached a deal Tuesday night on the spending plan, but it was not distributed to lawmakers until just after 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. That means the required 72-hour review period was only triggered then.

So instead of adjourning the 60-day session on Friday as scheduled, it will spill into a 61st day on Saturday. The issue was not items in dispute but simply allowing time for staff to get the voluminous document added up and in order, lawmakers said.

Still, the deal is done on the one bill the Legislature must pass.

Public schools, which make up a large chunk of the spending, would see an overall increase of more than $782 million or about 3.7% in the main account compared with last year, according to budget documents. That translates to a little over $242 additionally per student for the coming school year.

The agreement also calls for a nearly 2% increase in discretionary money that Florida’s 67 school districts can use for a variety of purposes, including raises for teachers and school staff. It includes $285 million for the “Best and Brightest” program that gives bonuses to the most effective teachers and principals.

“In a nutshell, we’ve been very good to schools this session,” said Republican Rep. Travis Cummings of Fleming Island, chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Democrats have criticized Republican measures to create more voucher programs for students to attend private and religious schools at taxpayer expense, including a bill sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday that represents a major expansion of such programs and lack of overall pay increases for teachers. But Republicans have countered that their budget shows they are not abandoning public schools.

“This was a very big year for traditional public schools,” said GOP Sen. Rob Bradley, the Senate Appropriations Committee chair who is also from Fleming Island.

The budget includes about $682 million for environmental needs such as Everglades restoration and protection of Florida’s many freshwater springs. It would spend more than $280 million on education construction and maintenance work and more than $220 million on a variety of programs — such as affordable housing, rebuilding hospitals and fixing infrastructure — to help the Florida Panhandle recover from Hurricane Michael, which struck the area in October as a powerful Category 5 storm.

Senate President Bill Galvano said one of this year’s budget priorities was to assist people who are still struggling after the hurricane, which many lawmakers describe as the forgotten storm. Galvano said this budget raises total Hurricane Michael state spending to more than $1.8 billion while Congress has been unable to agree on a federal disaster aid package.

“The tremendous amount of funding the state has invested in hurricane recovery placed significant constraints on our budget that guided every facet of our decision making in all other areas,” said Galvano, a Bradenton Republican.

The spending blueprint also sets aside $3.4 billion in a reserve “rainy day” fund.

One of the more hotly disputed items was whether to renew the Visit Florida tourism agency, which the House wanted to let expire as planned under current law in October. House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican, was among those criticizing the agency’s spending practices and contracts.

But DeSantis wanted Visit Florida to continue and lawmakers ultimately decided to approve $50 million in funding, extending its life until June 30, 2020. It is less than the $76 million the governor proposed.

The budget in many areas follows recommendations by DeSantis with some exceptions. DeSantis has line-item veto authority once legislators pass the budget, meaning he can eliminate specific areas even if legislators approved them.

The spending plan also contains dozens of last-minute projects sprinkled across the state ranging from $100,000 for rehabilitation of former President Harry S. Truman’s Little White House in Key West to $200,000 for Elevate Lake, an economic development office in north Florida’s Lake County.

It also includes $3.8 million for a new state aircraft for DeSantis, who has been using a hand-me-down plane with mechanical problems that once required an emergency landing. Lawmakers determined the governor needs a dependable plane. Former Gov. Rick Scott, a multimillionaire, sold the previous state aircraft because he had his own.

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Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt

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This story has been amended to correct the budget total to $91.1 billion.