DeSantis would spend nearly $100 million next year; Biden bucks would help him do it

Gov hammers president, but COVID relief props up his budget wishes

By: - December 9, 2021 4:00 pm

Gov. Ron DeSantis discusses his proposed budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year. Dec. 9, 2021. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

Gov. Ron DeSantis will ask the Florida Legislature to spend $99.7 billion during the fiscal year that begins July 1 —a retrenchment from the $101.5 billion budget for the current fiscal year, which was fattened by billions in federal COVID assistance.

Even so, the spending plan would allow “record funding for key priorities such as education, our environmental resources, as well as support for law enforcement — all while maintaining an historic amount of reserves: more than $15 billion,” the governor said during a news conference in the state Capitol.

Those numbers might not be the last word, however, if tax revenues continue to exceed expectations, as they have for the past year, due to increased consumer spending and a generally healthy state economy — again, propped up by federal relief but also, according to DeSantis, by his policy of keeping businesses and schools open notwithstanding the pandemic.

“By the time this budget takes effect, we would potentially have $17 billion in reserves by July 1, 2022,” the governor said.

That’s too much money in the piggy bank, according to Democrats including Carlos Guillermo Smith, a state House member from Orange County, speaking during a Zoom news conference.

“Look, $15 billion — billion with a “B” — leaving that in reserves in a time when Floridians are struggling with a number of crises is not a responsible budget,” Smith said. Better to spend another couple of hundred million on affordable housing, he suggested, or shortening the wait list for disability services.

In any event, DeSantis’ “Freedom First Budget” states his priorities, but the Legislature, set to convene on Jan. 11, will have its own ideas.

Other House Democrats found it notable that DeSantis has been so critical of President Joe Biden but relies on federal COVID dollars to finance his budget. (It’s normal for federal funds to be a part of  state budgets but the pandemic assistance layers massively on top of that.)

As the governor himself pointed out, the state is still awaiting half of the $3.5 billion the feds have pledged in COVID assistance; it’s due next spring.

“As the governor continuously attacks President Biden, attacks the federal government and the administration, the reality is that we could not balance this budget or even give out tax breaks if it wasn’t for President Joe Biden,” Orange County’s Anna Eskamani claimed during the Zoom conference.

Nikki Fried, the Democratic state commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services who’s seeking her party’s nomination to run against DeSantis next year, also picked up on that point.

“Instead of blasting the president, Gov. DeSantis should be thanking the Biden administration for stepping up and providing the support needed to address the state’s problems that the governor has not only failed to fix but too often ignored,” Fried said in a written statement.

Brewster Bevis, president of the pro-business Associated Industries of Florida, praised the governor’s plan, however, as “fostering freedom and prosperity.”

“This proposed budget continues that important work with significant investments in our environment and science-based water quality projects, a high-quality education system, vital transportation projects, and workforce development,” Bevis said in his own written statement.

Where it would go

Here are some key elements of DeSantis’ proposals:

  • For public schools, $600 million to continue efforts to reach a minimum teacher salary of $47,500. Another round of $1,000 bonuses for teacher and principals. The document would increase per-student spending by $8,000 and provide $421 million for school safety and mental health programs. There’s $534 million to expand workplace education, including apprenticeship programs.
  • For public safety, $226.7 million for pay raises with $5,000 signing bonuses for police officers who move to Florida from out of state or join fresh from police academy plus help paying certification fees. There’s $100 million to boost the Florida National Guard and $5 million to study how to improve and modernize the prison system plus pay raises for corrections and other state law officers.
  • For the environment, more than $600 millions for Everglades restoration, $195 million for water quality programs; and $35 million to target blue-green algae.
  • On health care, $200 million in pay raises for direct-care workers, $100 million for cancer research, $15 million for Alzheimer’s disease research, $188.6 million for mental health and substance abuse programs, and $133 million for the child welfare system, including adoption subsidies.
  • Regarding taxes, a 25-cents per gallon drop in the gasoline tax, to save consumers up to $1 billion during the 2022-23 fiscal year, plus tax holidays for consumer spending on outdoors activities, back to school, and disaster preparedness. There’s a permanent elimination of the fee to acquire a Florida ID card, worth $14.7 million.
  • There would be no tuition increases at public colleges and universities.
  • DeSantis also would experiment with the use of blockchain technology, the system underlying cryptocurrency, to pay for vehicle titles, collect business fees, and audit Medicaid transactions.
  • The Florida Department of Transportation would get $10.4 billion to build and maintain infrastructure.

During his news conference, DeSantis claimed his policies have spared the state “draconian budget cuts.”

He pushed back against his Democratic critics, arguing that his policies — including opening schools and banning workplace vaccine mandates without opt-outs — have saved working Floridians’ jobs. By contrast, the governor savaged Biden’s “inflationary policies.”

“I just don’t see how you can say you’re standing up for everyday people if you think that they should lose their jobs,” DeSantis said.

Democrats, however, complained the budget wouldn’t do enough to provide affordable housing and medical care for needy Floridians or make the state’s regressive tax structure more equitable.

The governor’s budget would advance some Democratic goals in schools, affordable housing, college tuition, infrastructure, and the environment, but not to the degree they think necessary, said Rep. Angie Nixon of Duval County.

“If the Legislature falls short, governor, you need to veto that budget,” Nixon said.

“We’re not being dramatic when we say that the governor is very reliant on federal funds. And it wouldn’t be as important as a point if he wasn’t continuously villainizing the federal government,” Eskamani said.

“Which is all tied to his own political ambitions, of trying to contrast himself with President Joe Biden, as we know what the governor’s political motivations are beyond his governorship,” she said.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.