Every weekend, we take a look at the news stories shaping the conversations in Florida’s business, policy and political worlds. Here’s this weekend’s Capitolist wrap-up, which we call “The Wrap.”
Lawmakers pass $101.5 billion state budget, leaving plenty of room for vetoes
Like a nuclear missile going through final prelaunch checks while parked in a protective silo, somewhere in Florida there is an ink pen resting inside its barrel or a protective cap that will soon be wielded by the hand of Governor Ron DeSantis. He’ll uncap it and begin to draw lines through budget items, of which there are a lot, and the numbers beside them larger than ever.
Florida lawmakers on Friday passed a state record $101.5 billion state budget, an increase of about $500 per capita over last year’s pre-pandemic budget, and $10.4 billion more overall. While the number is staggering by Florida standards, the state’s constitutionally mandated balanced budget requirement generally does a decent job of keeping spending in check. By comparison, while Florida spends just $4,700 per capita, New York, with four million fewer people, passed a $212 billion state budget this year that costs $11,300 per capita.
But despite the Sunshine State’s relative frugality, $101.5 billion is still an awful lot of money, and gives DeSantis the most target-rich environment for line item vetoes in state history. By comparison, in 2011, then-Governor Rick Scott set what was thought to be a record amount of line item vetoes when he slashed about one percent of the budget, or nearly $700 million, from $69 billion in lawmaker-approved state spending that year.
At the time, Florida was still in the midst of a budget crunch and celebrated the veto record by handing out custom-made red Sharpie “veto pens” with his signature on them to the assembled crowd of Tea Party faithful.
Since the pandemic began, state lawmakers have been carefully monitoring the revenue situation, and initial projections in those early months were dire, with some economists predicting shortfalls in the billions of dollars. But each month, state revenues kept beating the pessimistic forecasts and everyone began to come to the realization that the economic damage, while significant, was also relatively concentrated in specific sectors, especially tourism, travel, and hospitality.
Florida opened its economy sooner than most other states, and immediately began reaping the economic benefits and mitigating additional damage. For this, DeSantis deserves a significant share of the credit, especially since he took more than his share of media-led political criticism for the decision.
But let’s be honest: DeSantis’s bold move to reopen Florida last summer didn’t result in Florida managing to generate an extra eight billion dollars above this spring’s earlier projections. No. All that extra cash came from the printer at the United States Federal Reserve.
Given Washington D.C.’s grotesque willingness to print and spend money we don’t have, it’s more important than ever for DeSantis to be bold and slash every single dollar of wasteful spending tucked into this year’s budget. Lawmakers knew ahead of time that the federal reserve was sending a massive windfall. There’s no doubt they tucked away millions upon millions in so-called “member projects” that don’t have any measurable return on investment and would be prime candidates for the red ink of DeSantis’s pen.
Welcome to your post-pandemic life
Earlier this week, DeSantis renewed his executive order continuing the state of emergency that has existed in the Sunshine State since March 9th of last year. The order lasts another 60 days, and enables Florida to qualify for ongoing federal aid money to help combat COVID-19.
The extension was more of a pro forma exercise and less of a statement about the seriousness of the situation facing Florida. As we just pointed out, Florida’s budget swelled to its record proportions precisely because of federal pandemic aid flowing to the states. Nobody, least of all DeSantis, wants to thumb his nose at those dollars because they help shore up a number of crucial programs and will help mitigate the economic damage of the virus long after any traces of it have vanished.
Which brings us to the real point: will all traces of the SARS-CoV-2 virus ever vanish? Likely not. We’re stuck with this thing, it’ll always be lurking, stalking victims and killing people. In fact, years from now, clustered outbreaks of the disease will show up at the peak of flu season, killing some of us each year in the same way influenza does now.
So beyond wearing a mask when appropriate, and making the vaccine available to everyone who wants to get it, what more is left to be done? Answer: nothing. We’re there. We’ve crossed the finish line. We’ve literally done all we are going to do, all we really can do, short of forcing the unvaccinated to get their shots.
This is the new normal. This is what life looks like in the post-pandemic world.
It will take a while for people to realize that this is really all there is to it, that, barring a miracle cure, there isn’t going to be a formal declaration of victory where the last coronavirus spore is eradicated, the masks are thrown in the trash, and politicians stand in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner. Instead, one by one, we’ll eventually come to grips with the realization that all that can be done is being done, and those things that we can do to mitigate personal risk will be left to each of us, individually, to determine how we mitigate those risks for ourselves and others.
Everywhere, there are signs that life is starting to look more and more like it used to, sort of. Last weekend, Florida was the first in the nation to host a full-capacity live sporting event, with 15,000 fans packing an arena in Jacksonville to watch UFC 261. Some wore masks. Many did not. The world kept turning. Some people probably got sick. Most almost certainly didn’t.
Data shows the vaccine appears to be doing its job. The median age of new COVID-19 cases is trending younger, consistent with the fact that older people are mostly fully vaccinated.
As of this weekend, about a third of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 6.2 million have been fully vaccinated. The number of hospitalized patients with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19 has declined to about 3,100, while the weekly average number of new cases and deaths appears to be on the decline toward the lowest point in the past year. Last week, the Jackson Health System in Miami-Dade County – the literal heart of the pandemic in Florida – announced they would discontinue offering vaccine shots after April 30th. Not because they were out of doses, but because demand for the shots has gone down dramatically.
If everyone who wants the vaccine has it, what’s left to be done before we finally admit the life we see over our paper masks and fogged eyeglasses is as good as it gets?