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House, Senate nail down spending plan

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

By Jim Turner

News Service of Florida

May 1, 2023

TALLAHASSEE --- After what they called the “smoothest” budget negotiations in years, House and Senate leaders on Monday finished working out details of a spending plan that is expected to top $116 billion.

The plan for the fiscal year that will start July 1 would be more than $6 billion larger than the budget for the current year. The budget, which will be published Tuesday, includes such things as Gov. Ron DeSantis starting to get $4 billion he wants to speed a series of highway projects.

As other examples, $850 million is headed to a planned statewide wildlife corridor, and state employees will receive 5 percent raises, with additional pools of money set aside for incentives intended to keep valuable workers from seeking new jobs.

Meanwhile, more than 250 spending items sought by individual lawmakers were littered through the package. They range from $15 million for a crane replacement at JaxPort in Duval County to $250,000 for forensic genetic genealogy testing in Collier, Orange, Hillsborough and Palm Beach counties.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, said proposals put forward by senators focused on such issues as hurricane relief, universities, mental-health initiatives, seniors in nursing homes and graduate medical assistance to keep doctors from leaving Florida.

Details released Monday included $3.8 million for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for protective operations. The agency’s duties include overseeing security for the governor.

Also, the plan includes $19.03 million to cover $5,000 hiring and retention bonuses for correctional officers at 15 Department of Corrections facilities with high vacancy rates. Another $8.5 million would go to raise salaries of correctional officers in privately operated facilities.

Broxson and House Appropriations Chairman Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, also agreed to provide $300 million for efforts to combat rising sea levels. The House had initially sought $400 million for sea-level measures, while the Senate was at $179.

The Senate also agreed to a House proposal to spend $100 million for purchasing conservation easements, which are a way to limit development on agricultural land while allowing ranchers and farmers to continue operating. The Senate had proposed $400 million for the program, which is within the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The department received $300 million for land-preservation programs in the current year, with most of the money going to conservation easements.

The House and Senate also agreed to spend $382.5 million during the upcoming 2023-2024 fiscal year for Everglades restoration.

Among deals reached over the weekend was the creation of a drone replacement program within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. A state directive last month ordered an immediate halt to using certain drones from a “foreign country of concern,” primarily China, and limiting the future use to drones made by a list of “approved manufacturers.”

The budget would require drones that are turned in to be sent for analysis at the Florida Center for Cybersecurity at the University of South Florida.

To be eligible for replacement, drones must still be in working condition. Funding would be provided based upon the drones’ current value.

“We know we’re going to have to retire thousands of dollars of drones,” Broxson said Saturday.

DeSantis in January announced what he dubbed the Moving Florida Forward plans to speed construction on 20 road projects. With DeSantis seeking $4 billion, the new budget will initially provide $2.5 billion.

The Joint Legislative Budget Commission, which is made up of House and Senate members and can make mid-year budget decisions, would be able to release the remaining $1.5 billion when road plans are advanced, Broxson said.

Lawmakers are flush with cash this year, in part because tax revenues have repeatedly topped estimates.

Conference committees began negotiating the various areas of the budget early last week. Unresolved issues moved Friday to Broxson and Leek.

The two spent much of Saturday and Sunday working on the remaining differences.

“We have had about the smoothest budget process, certainly the smoothest I’ve ever seen, and maybe one of the smoothest we've ever had,” Leek said as talks opened on Saturday. “And that's a credit to our friends in the Senate and to the staff and everybody working together.”

Broxson agreed with the assessment that the talks haven’t been as contentious as in prior years.

“Chairman Leek has really only hollered at me twice. And he did it without profanity,” Broxson said.

The budget is on target for votes Friday, the last scheduled day of the regular legislative session. State law requires a 72-hour “cooling off” period before lawmakers can vote on the budget. That would be met if the budget is published Tuesday.

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