TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA — House and Senate negotiators agreed Wednesday night to use $200 million in federal stimulus funds to fund a portion of Gov. Ron DeSantis’s request for a gas tax break, as they sealed up another chapter of a budget deal that will force the annual legislative session into overtime.
House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, and Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, authorised a broad spectrum of stimulus spending. This included funding the gas tax holiday, which was scheduled to begin in October, just before the November elections. Additionally, they agreed on an additional $450 million in tax relief, which was essentially included in a House plan (HB 7071).
A budget above $100 billion is anticipated to be finished Thursday, with Trumbull and Stargel still working out differences on so-called “conforming” items, which include a contentious environmental package (SB 2508).
The state is awash with cash as a result of stimulus funds and higher-than-expected tax collections. However, because House and Senate leaders were unable to complete the budget by Tuesday’s deadline, lawmakers will almost certainly return to Tallahassee on Monday to vote on a spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
“People usually believe it’s more difficult when they don’t have money. I’d say it’s been more difficult to figure out how to fund things effectively in an efficient and successful manner,” Stargel added.
Stargel and Trumbull both expressed concern over the state’s distribution of what negotiators are referring to as a “School Recognition Fund.” This $200 million fund will be used to compensate school districts who did not mandate children to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
Initially, the House sought to divert $200 million away from 12 districts with mandatory mask wear. However, that was restructured Tuesday to include the “recognition” fund.
Stargel told reporters Wednesday that the Senate rejected a House motion to bar the 12 districts from receiving recognition monies. She stated that the plan was contained in budget jargon known as “proviso” wording. She stated that it will be addressed in a budget “implementing” law that will assist in resolving fiscal concerns.
“We rejected that proviso. However, it will be in implementation, which will establish the parameters under which the money will be divided to the various counties,” Stargel explained.
Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Sarasota, and Volusia counties are represented by the 12 districts.
Budget officials are also seeking $800 million to fund the continuation of a plan to increase teacher compensation.
“I believe that one of the things that was challenging about having this lot of money was that we attempted to prioritise spending, not necessarily on expanding government and expanding services,” Stargel said. “We’ve had teachers who have been without funding for years as a result of the economic slump. As a result, we invest money in the hope of retaining excellent teachers.”
Additionally, lawmakers are on track to increase the state’s minimum wage for all school employees to at least $15 per hour.
“We increased the BSA (base student allocation) to ensure that cafeteria employees, school bus drivers, and everyone else earned $15 an hour,” Stargel explained, noting that voters supported raising the statewide minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026 in 2020. “We are aware that this will occur in our state in the near future. We wanted to make certain that we… jumped ahead of that with these monies while we still had them.”
Additionally, negotiators disclosed information on how federal stimulus funds will be allocated, including $1.5 billion for education building projects.
$400 million of the $1.5 billion is earmarked for maintenance projects at state colleges, while $443.7 million is earmarked for upkeep at state universities. A total of $558 million is earmarked for capital projects at postsecondary schools.
A related House proposal (HB 5011) called for setting aside $2 billion to protect taxpayers from rising government spending due to inflation and to make a political statement against the federal government. Negotiations settled on a figure of $1 billion.
DeSantis has advocated for a five-month suspension of the state’s about 25-cent-per-gallon fuel tax beginning July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. Gas taxes contribute to the funding of road improvements, and DeSantis advocated using stimulus funds to make up for revenue lost over the five-month period.
However, parliamentary leaders expressed reservations about the idea, claiming that tourists would reap a disproportionate share of the benefits of a suspended gas tax. Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, stated Wednesday that the months of May through October normally attract the fewest tourists.
“The budget will take effect in July,” Simpson explained. “So October was the only other month in which we could do that. I believe this is an excellent chance. We don’t know whether they’ll price gasoline at $4.50 per gallon or $8 per gallon, but we feel the majority of Floridians would agree.”
Simpson, Trumbull, and Stargel all denied that the October date was chosen to coincide with the election.
Additionally, lawmakers would direct $50 million in federal funds to the Job Growth Grant Fund, which the governor could use for infrastructure and job training projects; $300 million for rural and family land conservation through the Rural & Family Lands Protection Program; $100 million for aquifer storage and recovery wells on the north side of Lake Okeechobee; $200 million for grants to assist local communities in combating rising sea levels; and $400 million for broadband expansion.
While the Senate amended portions of the House tax bill, critical components remained. They include a 14-day tax “holiday” in late July and early August for back-to-school items such as clothing, school supplies, and personal computers; a 14-day tax holiday in late May and early June to prepare for hurricane season; a seven-day tax holiday around Independence Day to encourage people to be more active; and a seven-day tax holiday on tools and other work equipment around Labor Day.