By John Haughey
May 5, 2019 7:41 p.m.
The Florida Senate convened Saturday at 1:17 p.m. and within 12 minutes had passed the only item on its agenda and transferred it to the waiting House, which briskly endorsed it within a half-hour.
Shortly after 2 p.m., it was all over.
The Florida Legislature’s 2019 session concluded Saturday with the swift adoption of a $91.1 billion Fiscal Year 2020 state budget that had been assembled, sliced and diced over the preceding 60 days and will be the continued focus of scrutiny and debate until the Legislature convenes next January to cobble together a Fiscal Year 2021 spending plan.
Intense budget negotiations that began with chamber conferences on April 23 produced a spending plan that did not land on lawmakers’ desks until early Wednesday afternoon.
State law requires a 72-hour “cooling off” period between lawmakers receiving and voting on a budget, which meant the Legislature could not cast their session-ending ballots until Saturday afternoon.
The Senate passed the spending plan unanimously without debate, 38-0, with the House endorsing it also without comment in a 106-2 tally, ending a legislative session that saw nearly 3,400 bills introduced but fewer than 150 adopted.
The $91.1 billion budget is about $400 million more than this year’s spending plan. The Senate submitted a $90.3 billion budget and the House an $89.9 billion plan, but what was ultimately adopted more closely resembled the budget request filed in Jannuary by newly elected Gov. Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis issued a statement following the Legislature’s quick adoption of the budget, calling the session “incredibly successful.”
Lawmakers granted DeSantis most of his priorities, including a $242-per-pupil increase in school spending, to $7,672 annual per student; the creation of a new school voucher program and $158.2 million allocation for charter schools to maintain; repair and remodel buildings and $628.6 million for Lake Okeechobee and other water projects.
DeSantis praised lawmakers for passing his drug importation plan, allowing smokable marijuana and budgeting $120 million to fight the opioid crisis. He thanked the Legislature for adopting a “sanctuary cities” ban bill he requested.
“I thank the Florida Legislature for presenting me with a bill that upholds the rule of law and addresses sanctuary cities and counties in Florida,” he tweeted. “We are a stronger state when we protect our residents, foster safe communities and respect the work of law enforcement.”
The budget includes a $1.8 billion relief package to help Hurricane Michael victims in the Panhandle, including money that has already been spent, sparking criticism that the state is not doing enough to respond to the vacuum created by Congress failing to approve a stalled disaster assistance bill.
“The tremendous amount of funding the state has invested in hurricane recovery placed significant constraints on our budget that guided every facet of our decision-making in all other areas,” said Senate President Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
The unexpected hurricane relief burden may have shaved back proposed tax-break packages from both chambers.
The House’s tax plan totaled $102 million, the Senate’s significantly more, but ultimately negotiators settled on a $90 million tax-relief package that includes sales “holidays” on back-to-school items and for hurricane season supplies.
Although the $90 million tax-relief bill is significantly less than this year’s $171 million package, Galvano cited the reduction in the commercial lease tax, or business rental tax [BRT], rate from 5.7 to 5.35 percent as a noteworthy achievement.
The reduction “will help the small businesses in our communities that lease property,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, praised the chamber’s GOP caucus for achieving much of what it set out to do in early March.
“Our caucus addressed the devastation and continued recovery needs of our Panhandle communities due to Hurricane Michael,” she said in a Saturday statement. “We prioritized school safety by emphasizing the importance of mental health, expanded Florida’s commitment to parent-directed educational choice, elevated our traditional neighborhood public schools, and invested in workforce education.”