By Lloyd Dunkelberger News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers continued negotiations Wednesday on a new $87 billion-plus state budget, after reaching agreement on several major issues, including a funding plan for public schools.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the Senate has agreed with the House on how to use local property taxes to help fund the 67 school districts. The House had objected to using an increase in the local taxes, known as the “required local effort,” that came as a result of higher property values.
Under the agreement, the Senate and House will use increases in local tax collections related to newly constructed homes and businesses. But they will lower the tax rate on existing properties to offset potential tax increases caused by higher values of those properties.
The net effect will be a funding plan close to what the House originally advanced, using $192 million in local taxes combined with $315 million in state funding for a $507 million overall increase in the school funding formula. It resulted in a $100 increase in per-student funding in a statewide system that includes 2.8 million students.
Bradley and House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said the fatal shootings this month of 17 students and staff members at a Parkland high school have changed the dynamic of reaching an agreement on a state budget for 2018-2019.
One direct result is that lawmakers have agreed to put $400 million toward helping Florida schools with issues such as mental-health services and more security. That financial priority, coupled with a decline in projected corporate income-tax collections and a higher demand for Medicaid services, has tightened the budget process.
Trujillo and Bradley said it will mean fewer projects for House and Senate members in the annual budget bill.
“It’s necessary, because there are more important things at stake,” Bradley said. “There is no price we can put on the safety of our children.”
The new dynamic has also resulted in the Senate moving toward the House on using unspent money in various trust funds to pay for other programs and initiatives.
The original House proposal shifted, or “swept,” nearly $400 million out of the trust funds, including $182 million out of affordable housing programs. The Senate’s budget bill only swept $124 million and did not touch the housing funds.
Bradley said the new budget demands have changed the Senate’s position.
“Because of Parkland, we’ve swept a lot of trust funds,” Bradley said. “And affordable housing, there just isn’t enough money there to maintain the Senate’s position of not sweeping that fund.”
The new budget reality will also impact Gov. Rick Scott’s priorities, including his call for $180 million in tax and fee cuts.
“We’re willing to help and deliver as much as we can, but I think all of our priorities have refocused (after Parkland),” Trujillo said.
Lawmakers have tentatively agreed on an $80 million tax-cut package, which could include more sales-tax “holidays” and few other measures.
Lawmakers are also moving toward agreement on $76 million for Visit Florida, the state’s main tourism promotion agency, although Scott has asked for $100 million.
The final budget is expected to include Scott’s request for $85 million to replenish the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, an economic development program initially approved last year.
“Several months ago, I had some concerns about the governor’s fund,” Bradley said. “But he’s demonstrated, (Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director) Cissy Proctor, they’ve demonstrated those funds are being spent wisely. The state taxpayers are getting a greater (return on investment) on it. We couldn’t be happier as a Senate. It’s going to get funded this year.”
The fund has attracted more than 225 applications seeking more than $821 million. Scott has allocated a little more than $35 million, including $6 million for a 1.5-mile access road at Cecil Commerce Center in Jacksonville and $8.25 million to expand access to the cruise and cargo terminals at Port Canaveral.
Over the next few days, House and Senate members will meet in a series of conference committees trying to work out the details of spending in education, health care, criminal justice, the environment and other areas of the state budget.
Unresolved issues will move to Trujillo and Bradley on Friday, with any issues unresolved by the chairmen eventually moving to House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.
Lawmakers have until Tuesday to work out a budget if they hope to end the annual session on time March 9. The state has a constitutional 72-hour waiting period before lawmakers can take final budget votes. The new budget will take effect July 1.