(The Center Square) – With Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis using veto power to trim $1 billion before signing a $92.2 billion fiscal year 2021 budget, there was no special session to vet the plan before it goes into effect Wednesday.
Florida Democrats, however, continue to petition the governor, Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, to convene a special session to discuss how to manage $4 billion in reserves and $6 billion in federal COVID-19 assistance.
DeSantis insists state emergency statutes gave him authority to unilaterally refashion the budget, adopted in March as COVID-19 emerged, and to allocate federal assistance by executive directive. Not everyone agrees.
Incoming Senate Democratic leader Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, maintains it is unconstitutional because Florida’s Constitution authorizes only lawmakers to allocate state revenues.
Article VII, Section I of the Florida Constitution reads, “No money shall be drawn from the treasury except in pursuance of appropriation made by law.”
“The governor and his agencies may not expend this money unless there is a specific appropriation authorizing the expenditure in question. It is our duty as members of the Legislature to make these decisions,” Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, wrote in letters sent Tuesday to Galvano and Oliva.
“This is our constitutional duty, and the governor cannot usurp it, even in a time of emergency,” Diamond wrote.
Galvano told senators in May the state needed “federal clarification” of rules and regulatory authority in appropriating COVID-19 assistance.
Oliva also expressed uncertainty about the governor’s intent to distribute federal funds without legislative approval, offering muted support for a special session before elections.
Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice chairman Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said the governor’s budget cuts will create “hidden ripple effects’’ best resolved in a special session.
Most Republicans, however, said there’s no need for a special session until August at the soonest, when the next state revenue forecast is due, or an appetite for one until after November’s elections.
“Based on the forecasting we have now and the tools that are available, we may come back early next year or late this year,’’ Galvano told the Tampa Bay Times, noting he doesn’t expect a special session this year but “haven’t foreclosed it.”
Incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill, said legislators can address any budget deficit and the state’s COVID-19 response after November’s elections and before the 2021 session begins next March.
Diamond chastised Oliva and Galvano for not calling lawmakers to Tallahassee and allowing DeSantis to “appropriate this money himself, without legislative authorization.”
Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, said the fact that the governor cut $1 billion in spending from the budget with Republican leaders behind closed doors is alarming.
Galvano, House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, acknowledged they collaborated with the governor’s office in adherence with his executive authority under state emergency statutes.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as ceding it all to the executive branch,’’ Galvano told the Miami Herald. “We’re watching and working together as these things unfold. What can’t happen is a rush up here for a day or two and think we can get all the answers.”
Democrats allege GOP leaders fear a special session would provide a platform to discuss the collapse of the state’s unemployment system, policing reform and critique DeSantis’ reopening plan.
“It is a lot easier to deal with this in the press than on the Senate floor,’’ said Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens. “A meteor could hit south Florida, and they will not bring us back to Tallahassee. They are abdicating their duty.”