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Florida Senators Raise Questions About DeSantis Budget

News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE --- Senate budget chief Kelli Stargel says she appreciates Gov. Ron DeSantis’ optimism.

But after Stargel and members of the Senate Appropriations Committee heard a presentation Tuesday about DeSantis’ newly proposed $96.6 billion for the upcoming fiscal year, she signaled the Senate will take a more conservative approach when it draws up a spending plan.

“I like to prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” said Stargel, a Lakeland Republican who chairs the committee.

Chris Spencer, director of the governor’s Office of Policy and Budget, faced a series of questions from the committee after presenting an overview of DeSantis’ proposal, which was released Thursday. It was the first in a series of briefings this week for House and Senate members, who will negotiate a final budget during the legislative session that starts March 2.

DeSantis’ spending plan would be about $4.3 billion larger than the current year’s budget, in part because of a flood of federal money the state has received to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

But after weeks of legislative leaders warning about the need to make budget cuts because of economic damage from the pandemic, some senators appeared skeptical of DeSantis’ proposal.

“The governor seems to have a much rosier picture in his budget, increasing money in the budget,” Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, said. “As legislators, we’ve been talking and have had presentations that we may have to have major cuts to things like health care and education (and) we need to find new ways to raise revenue.”

As an example of the issues raised Tuesday, Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, asked Spencer about whether DeSantis’ proposal takes into account about 88,000 fewer students enrolled in public schools this year than expected amid the pandemic.

Stargel said after the meeting that she thinks students will come back into the public school system next year. If that occurs, it could cost tens of millions of dollars to educate them.

“I hate to say the word ‘missing,’ but we have 88,000 students that did not register in fall for school,” Broxson said. “We are assuming they are not missing, that they are out there someplace. How did you calculate that into the budget?”

Spencer said the budget does not include money for those students, pointing to a conclusion from a state estimating conference that said there was not a methodology to project the number who would enroll. He raised the possibility, however, that school districts could use federal grant money to address “an unanticipated surge of return of those kids that’s unaccounted for in the budget.”

“I think we certainly want to chat with you more on that and what it looks like,” Broxson replied.

DeSantis’ $4.3 billion increase in the overall budget includes about $2.6 billion related to the COVID-19 response or impacts of the pandemic.

Also among the factors increasing the proposed budget’s bottom line is a surge of hundreds of thousands of people enrolling in the Medicaid program as they have lost jobs or need health-care coverage. Medicaid is expected to include about 4.59 million people during the upcoming year, with the increased enrollment reflected in higher costs for the program, which is jointly funded by the state and federal governments.

Among other things, the budget includes a $285 million increase in funding for public schools, $625 million for Everglades restoration and other water-related issues and money to start a multi-year “Resilient Florida” program to address the effects of sea-level rise and flooding.

In addition to relying heavily on federal money, the governor’s budget also uses other strategies to bump up available money. As an example, Spencer said the funding includes $413 million from bonding and $300 million from taking money out of trust funds that are ordinarily designated for specific purposes --- a process known as “sweeping” trust funds.

Stargel after Tuesday’s meeting expressed reservations about issuing bonds. More broadly, she pointed to a “lot of uncertainties” facing the state as she seeks to take a fiscally conservative approach.

“It is a challenge as we go forward, obviously,” Stargel said during the meeting. “I think from looking at the priorities of the (DeSantis) budget, it looks like a lot of our priorities are aligned in a lot of ways. I think where we may have differences is what are our thoughts going forward in being able to plan for our future.”

Jim Saunders / News Service of Florida
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