The 22-story Florida Capitol towers over the old Historic Capitol. Credit: Diane Rado
With the COVID-19 pandemic upending people’s lives, many Florida families are struggling to make ends meet — hoping for financial relief to cope with health care, homelessness, housing, rent, mortgages, food and other bills.
But Florida’s spending plan for 2021-22 reflects a budget that may or may not help Floridians.
The overall state budget is $101.5 billion, which includes $6 billion in reserves.
But the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature agreed to spend only $6.7 billion out of the $10.2 billion in federal dollars available from the Biden administration, failing to use tons of dollars that could bolster programs to provide immediate help for Floridians during a public health crisis.
Some $3.5 billion of those federal dollars will be sitting around in reserves.
And another year will go by and Florida will not have expanded Medicaid for low-income families. Florida is one of about dozen states that still hasn’t expanded Medicaid for vulnerable populations.
Democratic lawmakers pushing for the Medicaid expansion to address inequities in health coverage, but weren’t able to gain any traction.
That means a large number of residents from poor backgrounds may remain without health insurance, as more infectious COVID-19 variants are spreading across the nation.
At the same time, the Legislature pushed through initiatives such as a specific Medicaid program for moms and babies for postpartum health care for a full year, up from the current two months.
Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Republican, spearheaded the effort to spend $240 million for the initiative, a state-federal Biden administration program for families with low incomes who need access to Medicaid.
On the K-12 education front, the Legislature included more than a half-billion to continue a goal of boosting starting salaries to $47,500 for public school teachers, an initiative launched in 2019 by by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Plus, K-12 school teachers and principals will receive $1,000 bonus payments using federal dollars, spending $215.7 million on the initiative.
And another program includes millions for a reading initiative for struggling readers.
Several thousand low-paid state workers will get a salary boost to $13 an hour as a result of the state budget — an initiative of Republican Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson.
Overall, the budget includes $43 million for that program. Still, the state employee workforce has more than 100,000 employees, and the vast majority already earn more than $13 an hour, according to state salary data.
And jobless workers may finally see improvements to Florida’s reemployment assistance system, which crashed last year as claimants tried to receive benefit payments. The state will spend $36 million to overhaul the online portal and provide “increased maintenance and operations of the system,” while modernizing it.
That said, Democrats and some Republicans made a strong effort to increase unemployment benefits for the jobless to $375 a week, up from $275, but it appears to have stalled. Florida has the stingiest unemployment benefits in the nation, based on a combined $275 amount and 12 weeks of benefits.
Other priorities in the state budget also include major environmental and water quality projects, including billions for Everglades restoration.
The state budget also includes local projects that lawmakers push to help their constituents. Legislators, often with the help of lobbyists, work to get the projects into the state budget — but not always.
The projects have been controversial in the past, because the state budget is supposed to focus on statewide programs, rather than very local initiatives. Sometimes, governors will veto some local projects.
In the 2021-22 state budget, there are more than 600 local projects included in the budget, everything from programs for people with disabilities, after-school and mentoring programs, and infrastructure projects at colleges and universities.
Just after 1 p.m. Friday, the last day of the regular legislative session, the Senate voted 39 to 0 to approve the 2021-22 state budget, without any debate from Senate members on the chamber floor.
State Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Democrat representing part of Duval County, was listed as “not voting.” She had previously served as a Senate Minority Leader.
Senate Appropriations Chair Kelli Stargel said, “I think at the end of the day, we have a budget we can be proud of in the state of Florida.” A Republican, she represents part of Lake and Polk counties.
“I think it has us prepared for the future,” Stargel said. “I think we’ve been very measured in our actions and with that, it is a good budget…everyone has worked together.”
Close to 2 p.m. in the House, members voted 117 to 1 on the state budget. State Rep. Anthony Sabatini, from Lake County, voted the budget down. And two representatives did not vote. They were Nicholas Duran, of Miami-Dade and Christopher Benjamin, also of Miami-Dade.
“The budget isn’t just numbers on a page,” said Republican Jay Trumbull, chair of the House Appropriations Committee. He represents part of Bay County.
“This budget makes bold policy choices…making Florida prepared not just today but for Florida’s future,” Trumbull said.
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