TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Senate on Wednesday unanimously passed a $90.3 billion budget plan for next fiscal year, while the House began work on its version that is about $400 million less in total spending.
The Senate vote was 40-0 for its spending blueprint for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Once the House passes its version, negotiations will begin on a final proposal that lawmakers can send to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis before their 60-day regular session ends in May.
DeSantis’ own budget plan comes in at $91.3 billion. The House planned a floor vote Thursday on its budget bill.
Sen. Rob Bradley, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the Senate’s plan is "truly is a reflection of the priorities of the people you all represent."
"We’re just beginning our work as we move into conference," the Fleming Island Republican added.
Major differences between all three plans include education spending, water quality and the environment and spending levels for mental health services in schools. All three proposals are also above current overall state spending levels.
Some detailed differences:
—EDUCATION: The Senate measure would increase per-student funding by $1.1 billion or 4.71 percent, which comes to about $350 more per student. The House is at $579.3 million more per student or a 2.75 percent increase, roughly $167 more per student. DeSantis asked for a middle-ground number at about $224 more per student.
—ENVIRONMENT: DeSantis asked lawmakers for $625 million to fund Everglades restoration, water quality improvements, protection for natural springs and the Florida Forever land-buying program, among other things. The Senate bill is higher at $656 million, while the House budget plan contains less than the governor wants at about $607 million.
—SCHOOL MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES: The House budget contains the same $69 million that was appropriated this year in the wake of the 2018 massacre that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The Senate budget boosts that amount by $31 million, to $100 million.
—VISIT FLORIDA — The House spending plan includes just $19 million for the state’s tourism promotion office, enough to close it down by October as required by current law. The Senate provides $50 million to keep Visit Florida operating past October and DeSantis wants it fully funded at $76 million.
Both legislative budget plans contain money for continued Hurricane Michael recovery, affordable housing initiatives and limited raises for only select state employees. Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who represents thousands of those employees, said budget-writers deserved credit for boosting salaries for some workers such as Florida Highway Patrol troopers but urged that more be done.
"How do we make sure that at some point we touch all state employees with a raise?" Montford asked.
"That is not something we could accomplish and do some of these other things," Bradley replied.
The House had been scheduled Wednesday to vote on several other bills, including a controversial measure to permit all classroom teachers to carry guns in school if they volunteer, go through training and evaluation and if their local school board agrees. But House Speaker Jose Oliva temporarily shelved that measure and the other bills, saying the Senate did not want to mix appropriations and policy bills.
"We want to be respectful and work with our Senate partners," said Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican.
More than two dozen protesters were in the House gallery against the guns-for-teachers bill.
The budget is the only bill lawmakers are required to pass during their annual session.
"It’s like putting together a 50,000-piece puzzle," said Democratic Sen. Janet Cruz of Tampa.
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