Gov. Ron DeSantis’ budget plan: More money for environment, schools, housing
Gov. Ron DeSantis is recommending a $91.3 billion budget that includes increases for environmental projects, Everglades restoration, mental health programs, schools, universities and colleges. The hikes are paid for largely with projected $1 billion increase in state revenues and additional federal funds.
TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Ron DeSantis released a $91.3 billion budget recommendation to lawmakers Friday, his first as governor and the largest in state history — a $2 billion increase on the current year.
It includes increases for environmental spending, schools, universities and costs related to Hurricane Michael, paid for largely with higher revenue thanks to a humming economy. But the spending plan, which DeSantis touted as a “bold vision for a brighter future,” also keeps funding levels the same for many programs.
The plan is just a suggestion to lawmakers, who will begin to draft the budget when they start the legislative session March 5.
“This is a budget that is keeping in line with Florida being a low tax state, looking out for taxpayers, providing — particularly middle-income families — tax relief,” DeSantis told reporters in the Capitol.
The budget plan, which doesn’t include major cuts to health care or large tax cuts, drew tempered praise from Democrats.
“I am encouraged to see the governor’s commitment to priorities Democrats have long embraced, especially the clean-up of our water, and increased funding for public education,” said Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville.
DeSantis’ plan for tax cuts, however, falls short of his campaign rhetoric.
While running for governor, DeSantis released an economic plan calling for a series of business tax cuts, including reductions in the corporate income tax, on cell phones and cable TV and a phase-out of the business rent tax.
But his budget plan only includes two sales tax holidays – one for back-to-school items and another for disaster preparedness goods in the lead up to hurricane season.
He also suggests using the roll-back rate – the amount needed to prevent increases in property values from producing tax increases – for local governments’ contribution to K-12 school spending. DeSantis considers that a $290 million tax cut because the rate is reduced, even though it generates the same amount of revenue in property taxes.
In a departure from what the Republican-led Legislature has done in recent budget years, DeSantis wants all money in the affordable housing trust fund, known as the “Sadowski Fund,” to be used for affordable housing. Lawmakers have swept those funds to pay for other items in all but a handful of years in the last decade – a decision consistently slammed by housing advocates and the construction industry.
GOP House leaders have also consistently called for larger tax cuts and for keeping spending levels in line with population growth.
“The Constitution requires a balanced budget, but we have an additional responsibility to respect Florida’s taxpayers by spending each dollar wisely,” said House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes. “To meet this goal, the House will craft a budget that reduces per capita spending. I am confident Florida’s economic success will continue under Governor DeSantis as long as we keep taxes low and spending in check.”
For K-12 schools, DeSantis is proposing $21.7 billion, a nearly $700 million increase on the current year. That comes out to about $7,653 per student, a $224 increase. About $423 million of that will go to new plans to reduce a teacher shortage.
DeSantis plans to release details on those programs next week, but part of it will include major changes to the ‘Best and Brightest’ program that paid teachers bonuses based on SAT and ACT tests they took in high school.
“To me, that didn’t make sense,” DeSantis said. “You’re already in a professional setting. Teaching is as much about the heart as the head.”
There’s also $212 million for school safety programs, including the Guardian program to arm school personnel, including qualified teachers with appropriate training, with firearms — an increase of $50 million on the current year. An outlay of $79.2 million for mental health programs in schools is in the plan as well, a $10 million hike.
He also wants $620 million in performance funding for state universities and $120 million for state colleges, a $30 million increase for each set of institutions. The money is doled out to schools based on rankings for their performance on a number of metrics, including research grants and faculty. The Bright Futures scholarship program is funded at $583 million, a $63 million increase.
DeSantis fully funded the transportation work program with $9.7 billion to be used for roads, rights-of-way, rail lines and other infrastructure. The plan includes $790 billion in bonding, borrowed money that was frowned upon under Rick Scott.
DeSantis didn’t include money to expand three highways through rural areas, something proposed by Senate President Bill Galvano on Thursday. But he said he’s interested in Galvano’s plans.
“We’ve started to highlight our approach as being focused on relieving congestion in some these really different areas like Miami and Central Florida,” DeSantis said.
If lawmakers follow DeSantis’ blueprint for economic development, there will be little change next year. He’s asking for the same $76 million for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotion agency, as in the current year’s budget, and wants to keep the $85 million job growth grant fund, a pot of money for job training and infrastructure projects.
The grant fund was a compromise between Gov. Rick Scott and House leaders in 2017 when they proposed to eliminating or severely cutting back those programs. DeSantis said he wants to see how the program works before suggesting major changes.
“As governor, I’m looking at, ‘Okay, are these tools that I could use?’ So we put it in there, we’ll use them and if it’s something I don’t think is getting bang for the buck I won’t recommend it next year,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis previously said this week he’ll seek $625 million for water quality projects and Everglades restoration. Environmental groups accustomed to bashing DeSantis’ predecessor, Rick Scott, over his policies have lauded the new administration.
“The health of all Floridians is dependent on our access to clean water and ample natural areas,” said Jonathan Webber, deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters. “The commitment from Governor DeSantis to support the Florida Forever land conservation program shows that he is listening to the people of our state who are demanding action for our environment.”