Teacher pay and fiscal discipline.
Those are two of the top priorities from leading Republicans as state lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis prepare to spend more than $90 billion in the next fiscal year beginning in July. Over $30 billion of that is collected from state taxes and fees.
"This coming legislative session really needs to be the year of the teacher," DeSantis told reporters in the Capitol late last month.
Florida lawmakers have their backs to the wind as they begin work on a new state budget. The state’s economy is booming thanks to people moving to Florida and a record number of people visiting the state. The growth means more money for lawmakers when the next legislative session begins early next year.
Growing tax revenues, a strong state economy and an election year create little tension when it comes to the sole mandatory job of lawmakers -- pass a balanced state budget.
Senate President Bill Galvano describes the budget environment as "cautiously positive." Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson doesn't anticipate many budget fights this year, either. "If we kept everything the way we did it this year," she said,"I think there wouldn't be too much griping except for teachers salaries."
In the House, Speaker Jose Oliva is more reserved about his outlook. "I'm taking a more austere approach," he said.
Florida State Revenues
State finances are strong. Revenues are expected to be up more than four percent compared to this fiscal year. Tourism is helping fuel the growth.
There is no recession in the official forecast from state analysts. Coordinator of the Office of Economic and Demographic Research Amy Baker told the Senate Budget Committee in September her office's outlook "only has a slowdown" noting "turning points in the economy are very, very difficult to project."
Who Pays the State Sales Tax
Since early October Gov. DeSantis has been touting his plan to raise the minimum pay of public school teachers to $47,500. It would cost $600 million. The governor has not spoken in detail about how he’d like the raise structured, what teachers would qualify, or how it would be paid.
Democrats have been encouraged by the governor’s focus on teacher pay, but call it a start. They’ve raised questions about how the pay would impact veteran teachers who haven’t experienced many pay bumps over the years.
“Yea, for the little raise,” said Gibson. “But more is needed for teachers who are on the job and have been on the job for years.”
Like the governor, Gibson is reluctant to offer many details regarding what Democrats want to see from the teacher pay raise effort. “The end of the conversation has to do with cost of living increases ovr time,” offered Gibson. She would like the effort to allow veteran teachers to catch up from missed raises in years past. Gibson also is reluctant to include public charter school teachers in any state-paid raise unless those chartered teachers “have the same requirements as our public school teachers.”
Republican legislative leaders have been cautious about adding $600 million in new spending to the new budget, and to future budgets since it would be designed as a pay hike, not a one-time bonus, which could be cancelled in a budget squeeze.
“Before we can commit to numbers for certain programs, whether it be teacher raises or otherwise, we have to know where we are — big picture,” said Senate Pres. Bill Galvano.
Galvano has suggested looking at the current pool of money earmarked for teacher bonuses that has collected over $300 million. “Those dollars might come available.” However, for budgetary purposes, that money is non-recurring. It’s up to lawmakers and the governor to agree to the bonus pay each year. A salary bump likely would become part of the annual state education spending plan.
When DeSantis unveiled his teacher pay hike proposal, House Speaker Oliva Tweeted gratitude, but not for the governor. Instead it was directed at “those who came before us and saw fit to bind us and all future legislatures to a balanced budget.”
In an interview with WLRN, Oliva called the issue of teacher pay “a valid concern and something that we need to take a look at.” He cited the House delivering on the governor’s 2019 spending priority — the environment.
Oliva’s top focus for new dollars in the budget also would be directed at salaries. However, by comparison to the governor’s $600 million priority for teacher pay, when asked his spending priority, Oliva’s was much more modest.
”This year, we will try to focus on the child welfare system,” he said. “To bring some real reform and to make being inside the welfare system as an employee — to make that fundamentally a career — would probably only take between $20 and $40 million. That would be increasing staff and that would mean increasing the pay of those people who actually go into a home.”
Oliva is skeptical of big spending increases. “That is how a budget grows,” he said. Yet Oliva expressed support for continuing the governor’s desired spending on the environment “I think that any Florida governor should have the environment is a priority,” he said.