TALLAHASSEE - While pointing to an economic resurgence amid the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday used his line-item veto power to slash $1.5 billion as he signed a record $100 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
DeSantis described the spending plan as reflecting "a state government that is meeting the core concerns of Floridians," during a bill-signing ceremony at The Garlic restaurant in New Smyrna Beach.
"Once I sign this budget, we will be signing a budget that responsibly supports our men and women in law enforcement, our K-through-12 education students and teachers, conserves and protects our great environmental and natural resources throughout the state of Florida, but does so in a way that has the lowest per-capita tax burden of any state in the country," DeSantis said. "If you would have said that a year ago, no one would have believed that that would have been possible."
DeSantis vetoed about 150 line items pitched by individual lawmakers out of about 700 included in the budget. But the vast majority of money vetoed was $1 billion in federal dollars that would have gone to a new emergency fund in the governor’s office.
The money for the fund would have come from the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal stimulus law signed in March by President Joe Biden. But DeSantis said federal guidelines dictated the money couldn’t be set aside to address future needs and could only be approved through "normal procurement," defeating the purpose of the requested emergency preparedness and response fund.
"If we were to go forward with it, we were going to run into (the) risk of having the feds come after us for it," DeSantis said.
DeSantis added that the veto ensures the federal money is available for other uses approved by the Legislature. Among other things, the Republiocan-controlled Legislature tapped federal money to provide $1,000 bonuses to first responders.
State Senate Democrats were quick to note the American Rescue Plan Act, which funneled billions of dollars to the state and bolstered the budget, was approved by congressional Democrats and Biden.
"A big chunk of the $10 billion from the federal stimulus act added to a bounty of transportation and economic development projects all over the state," Senate Democrats said in a statement. "The money even allowed the governor to dole out $1,000 bonuses to law enforcement, firefighters, and other front-line emergency workers. Unfortunately, as he took his victory lap to hand out the bonuses and brag about the many programs rescued as a result of the federal help, the governor never once directed thanks to those who made this possible."
The progressive group Florida Watch called the spending plan a "missed opportunity" to help more than just teachers and first responders with $1,000 bonuses as a reward for work during the pandemic.
"While children throughout our state are crammed into crumbling classrooms and portables, Republicans in Tallahassee refused to spend more than $3 billion that could have been used on much-needed maintenance projects in public schools," Florida Watch Executive Director Josh Weierbach said in a statement. "Instead, they raised taxes on every Floridian by $1 billion a year. They also turned away billions of dollars by refusing to become the 39th state to expand Medicaid, which would lower the cost of care for all Floridians and extend access to quality and affordable health care to over 800,000 workers."
In April, DeSantis signed into law a plan to require out-of-state online retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases made by Floridians, with the estimated $1 billion a year in revenue going to curb a pair of taxes on Florida businesses (SB 50).
The veto total announced Wednesday topped the $1 billion that DeSantis cut last year and the $131 million in cuts in 2019. DeSantis wielded his veto pen last year to help shore up the budget during uncertainty about how the pandemic would affect state tax revenues.
DeSantis used Wednesday’s event at the upscale Volusia County restaurant to highlight his efforts to reopen the economy last year.
"We were the state lifting people up. That was good for Floridians, but we were also the landing spot for a lot of people that wanted to escape the insanity and come and get their mental, you know, get recharged from escaping these lockdowns," DeSantis said.
The budget will take effect July 1 and, in part, funds the Department of Transportation’s $9.44 billion work program; provides $75 million for the Visit Florida tourism-marketing agency; provides $74 million for the Job Growth Grant Fund economic-development program; and raises to $13 an hour the minimum pay of state workers.
DeSantis approved $22.8 billion in spending for public schools, which includes a roughly $464 million "safety net" to help school districts deal with potentially high enrollment counts.
The state is expecting 2.86 million students to enroll in public schools next academic year, after education officials and lawmakers grappled with enrollment declines during the pandemic. But it is still unknown if previously "missing" students might return to public schools, potentially pushing enrollment beyond the state’s projection.
DeSantis also highlighted $550 million in the budget to continue increasing teacher salaries. That is in addition to one-time $1,000 bonuses for teachers and principals funded with federal money.
For the environment, the budget includes $102 million for the Florida Forever land-conservation program and $300 million to acquire land to protect wildlife corridors. It also includes $415 million for Everglades restoration; $50 million for state parks; $500 million to address effects of rising sea levels; $500 million for wastewater grants; and $100 million to clean up an old phosphate plant in Manatee County that sparked concerns this year about a potential environmental catastrophe.
DeSantis already had approved a $169 million tax-relief package that includes three sales-tax holidays. That includes a 10-day disaster preparedness period that started Friday and allows shoppers to avoid paying sales taxes when buying hurricane supplies. The state also will hold a tax-holiday period in August for back-to-school shoppers and a "freedom week" holiday period in July for outdoor and entertainment purchases.
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--- News Service staff writer Ryan Dailey contributed to this report.