Negotiators work to bridge budget differences

by | Feb 27, 2024

Senate and House negotiators in budget talks have quickly resolved some issues like tourism marketing and school safety, but remain divided on topics such as economic development funds and law enforcement bonuses, with a deadline approaching for finalizing the fiscal year 2024-2025 budget.

As budget talks continued Tuesday, Senate and House negotiators had quickly settled issues ranging from money for tourism marketing to school safety.

But with most of the work on the fiscal year 2024-2025 budget taking place behind the scenes, differences remained on numerous issues such as an economic-development fund, law-enforcement recruitment bonuses and water projects.

Conference committees on various parts of the budget started formal meetings Monday and continued Tuesday evening. Issues that they cannot resolve will be sent Wednesday to Senate Appropriations Chairman Doug Broxson and House Appropriations Chairman Tom Leek.

“I think the deadline that the chairman has set aside is (Wednesday) evening at 9 p.m.” Senate Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Chairman Ed Hooper said. “I think if we get close, and are still making progress, there’s a possibility we could get an extension for one more offer.”

As examples of agreements quickly reached, negotiators decided to provide $80 million for Visit Florida tourism-marketing efforts, the same amount as in the current fiscal year. The Senate continued to pitch another $5 million for the agency to market nature-based tourism and trail towns.

Negotiators also agreed to provide $13.99 billion for the Department of Transportation’s annual work program, which is expected to include the second year of a $7 billion program dubbed Moving Florida Forward. They also agreed to provide $15.4 million to continue funding the deployment of Florida National Guard members to help at short-staffed prisons.

Another $174 million will go to the State Housing Initiatives Partnership, or SHIP, program for affordable-housing efforts.

But the Senate on Tuesday proposed spending $75 million to replenish the Job Growth Grant Fund, which the governor can use for infrastructure and job-training projects and programs. The House proposed $42 million for the fund, while Gov. Ron DeSantis has requested $100 million.

The Senate upped a proposal from $15 million to $17 million to continue a program that offers $5,000 bonuses to new law-enforcement recruits and to attract veteran officers from other states. The House has proposed $20 million.

Also, the Senate didn’t propose money for a second year of upgrades to Florida National Guard facilities at Camp Blanding in Clay County. The House proposed $100 million for the work.

In education, House and Senate budget leaders are close to reaching agreements on big-ticket items.

The House on Monday proposed spending nearly $1.26 billion on increased teacher salaries — a $201.8 million boost over the current year’s budget. On Tuesday, the Senate proposed spending $200.5 million, just short of the House number.

Overall, the Senate and House both proposed funding public schools at $28.4 billion — with the Senate coming in only $24,641 higher than the House. The similar proposals for what’s known as the Florida Education Finance Program would represent a roughly 6.7 percent increase.

Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Keith Perry said Tuesday that the Senate and House plans are coming together.

“It’s close. There was a few issues that we’re still working with our House counterparts on. Hopefully we’ll have all that wrapped up soon,” Perry told reporters.

Funding for school safety and mental-health services have been among areas where the House and Senate aligned from the beginning of the negotiation process.

House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairwoman Josie Tomkow said Monday the House had “come to the Senate’s position” on increasing spending on mental health and school safety.

The proposal would boost mental-health spending by $20 million to $180 million and increase school safety spending by $40 million to $290 million.

Also, the Senate and House agreed to spend $100 million on conservation easements, which allow farmers and ranchers to continue using their land in exchange for limiting development. Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson had requested $300 million, while DeSantis proposed $100 million.

The state’s conservation efforts are expected to be bolstered through money from a gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. A bill (SB 1638) would direct gambling money toward such things as buying and maintaining land in a statewide wildlife corridor, removing invasive species and converting properties from using septic tanks to sewer systems.

The House and Senate released separate lists of member-backed water projects. Of the nearly 350 proposed projects, only a handful had matching funding, with the Senate list totaling $188.9 million and the House at $238.5 million.

Citrus research within the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is up for $8 million in the House proposal and $23 million in the Senate.

Negotiators need to finish a budget by March 5 for the legislative session to end as scheduled on March 8. That is because of a required 72-hour “cooling off” period before lawmakers can vote on the final budget. The budget will take effect July 1.


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