(The Center Square) – The Florida Senate on Wednesday unanimously adopted a proposed $95 billion Fiscal Year 22 (FY22) budget that would have been fiercely opposed if it wasn’t bound for dramatic revision in the coming weeks or in a special session before July 1.
Senate Appropriations Committee chair Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said the Senate would stick with its conservative approach in crafting a spending plan that calls for $2.5 billion in cuts, does not include $10.2 billion in federal assistance at the state’s disposal, and doesn’t incorporate $2 billion-plus added to the state’s revenue forecast Tuesday.
“Hopefully with the decisions we’ve made, we’re going to put ourselves in a position that going forward, Florida is going to stay in the position of maintaining our triple-A bond rating, of maintaining our good fiscal future,” Stargel said.
The Senate’s preliminary $95 billion spending plan, Senate Bill 2500, now shifts over to House, which also advanced its $97.1 billion version of the FY22 budget Wednesday and sent it for Senate review as the chambers begin closed-door conferencing to align the plans into one approved budget before the session adjourns April 30.
Unlike the Senate, the House budget allocates $8.2 billion of the federal assistance Florida received from the recently adopted $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) and sets aside $2 billion for reserves.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has also earmarked more the $4.3 billion in ARP money – including $1,000 bonuses for public school teachers – adding to his January $96.6 billion Florida Leads budget request.
But Stargel and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Tribly, have steadfastly held to a budget-writing approach that excludes the $10.2 billion in ARP monies and stays within last August’s revenue forecast that warned of a $5.27 revenue shortfall over the coming two fiscal years.
Florida economists updated those forecasts Tuesday and added $2 billion to the state’s revenue forecast, including almost $1.5 billion more than anticipated this year, and $550.8 million more next year.
“Much of the gain in the current year reflects a faster-than-expected recovery,” said Amy Baker, coordinator of the Legislature’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research OEDR), one of the four economists who issued Tuesday’s Revenue Estimating Conference forecast. (An OEDR page provides a full listing of updated REC forecasts)
Stargel told senators Wednesday that ARP monies are non-recurring so must be carefully allocated – DeSantis has suggested in a special session – and that the improved REC forecasts could allow some cuts to be backfilled but that the state still faces a $1.3 billion projected shortfall in revenues from collections forecast in January 2020.
“We’re going to have those discussions of how we go with that forward, but as has been stated going forward, this is going to be a very apparent, transparent process,” Stargel said.
The Senate plan includes $94 million to raise state employee minimum salaries to $13 an hour, $50 million for the child welfare system, and $3 billion for combating the Piney Point crisis.
The original spending plan called for $140 million in budget cuts to the state’s Department of Corrections to close four state prisons. An adopted amendment sponsored by Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, trimmed closures to one prison.
The Senate’s plan would drop the cap on college/university salaries from $200,000 to $180,00, affecting 1,200 employees and saving the state $39 million.
Under the Senate’s plan, hospitals could lose as much as $250 million in federal funding, prompting Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, to say on the floor, “If I were a hospital, I’d be doing a pretty good job of freaking out right now.”
“None of these decisions were easy. None of these decisions were places where we would like to be,” Stargel said. "We would have loved to have the booming economy we had prior to this pandemic.”