TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WWSB) - After a week of largely out-of-sight budget negotiations, Florida lawmakers have ironed out many major spending differences and are on track to wrap up the 2021 regular legislative session on time.
House and Senate budget chiefs on Friday night publicly accepted compromises on spending on health care, education and prisons. Some of the key decisions included backing off hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed Medicaid cuts for hospitals and nursing homes that have spent the past year dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Legislative leaders also reached agreement on more than $22 billion in school spending, including a bump in money for teacher salaries as well as $1,000 bonuses for teachers and principals that had been pitched by Gov. Ron DeSantis as a way to reward educators who helped reopen schools.
The bonus plan also includes money going to early learning instructors.
“We feel that those teachers have gone back and worked with these children,” Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said.
House and Senate leaders, however, have signed off on some noteworthy cuts: They agreed to wipe out a $600 annual stipend that covers textbook costs for top Bright Futures scholarship winners, a move that would save more than $37 million.
They also are eliminating a tuition assistance program, known as the Access to Better Learning and Education grant program, that serves students at some private colleges. The program is funded at $4.6 million in the current year.
Mark Anderson, a lobbyist for the grant program, went before lawmakers Friday night and pleaded with them to at least keep the program in existence even if they won’t set aside money for it in the new budget.
“Please consider at least keeping the statute, so we have an opportunity to show that this program does work,” Anderson said.
Stargel and House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, met again Sunday to resolve one of the largest outstanding issues: how to spend about $10 billion in federal aid that was part of the American Rescue Plan Act, a stimulus law signed last month by President Joe Biden.
They also need to resolve a push by Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, to boost the wages of low-paid state employees to $13 an hour.
The extra federal money has led to a complicated round of budget negotiations. As the state has reopened during the coronavirus pandemic, the economy has been on the upswing, but lawmakers were skeptical enough that they initially recommended large cuts that would have targeted hospitals, slashed an array of college financial-aid programs and shuttered a handful of prisons.
In the final rounds of negotiations, they backed off plans such as making major health-care cuts. The House and Senate initially proposed slashing base Medicaid payment rates for all hospitals, along with money for a so-called “critical care fund” that provides enhanced payments to 28 hospitals that provide the most charity care in the state. The House also had proposed reducing Medicaid funding for nursing homes. But, ultimately, negotiators agreed on a spending plan that kept intact payments for hospitals and nursing homes.
“Obviously we are pleased with where it appears to be landing,” said Justin Senior, CEO of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, which includes public, children’s and teaching hospitals. “We are really thankful. It’s been a really difficult year for hospitals and hospital workers, but we are really appreciative that even in a strange environment fiscally that the Legislature has maintained their investment in health care.”
Additionally, the House and Senate agreed to spend $240 million to fund a top priority of House Speaker Chris Sprowls: extending Medicaid postpartum benefits from the currently allowable two months to one year.
Lawmakers have also reached an accord on prison spending after Senate Republicans initially pitched a plan to shut down and demolish four prisons due to a drop in prison admissions that has coincided with the pandemic.
Under an agreement announced Friday night, the Senate accepted a plan drawn up by House Republicans to allow the Department of Corrections to shut down a prison and use the money saved by the facility’s closure to provide bonuses to prison workers.
“Our plan was to say, hey, Department of Corrections, if you would like to make a plan on how to close a prison, you can use those resources to go out and give your hard-working correctional officers a raise,” Trumbull said.
The deal also includes $5 million to be spent on $1,000 bonuses for new correctional officers, part of corrections Secretary Mark Inch’s plan to address chronic staffing shortages and employee turnover he said have contributed to a crisis in the corrections system.
The House and Senate must finalize the fiscal 2021-2022 budget by Tuesday because of a legally required 72-hour “cooling off” period before a final vote. The session is scheduled to end Friday. The budget will take effect July 1.
-- News Service staff writers Dara Kam and Ryan Dailey contributed to this report.