Gov. Ron DeSantis is proposing a boost in per-student spending, an overhaul in how the state rewards teachers, improvements to the state’s aging transportation network and more money to save the Everglades.
DeSantis unveiled his $91.3 billion budget proposal on Friday. Dubbed “Bold Vision for a Brighter Future”, DeSantis said his budget is basically to “keep it in line with last year.”
“Florida needs to remain a fiscally conservative state,” DeSantis said. “This is a budget that keeps in line with Florida being a low tax state.”
Yet the budget represents nearly a $4 billion increase over this year’s budget and 147 additional positions, a reflection, perhaps, to urgent needs throughout Florida, where a hurricane ravaged the Panhandle, school districts say they need help to comply with new security measures, and infrastructure needs abound.
DeSantis said he would emphasize education, the environment and infrastructure, while also providing more than $335 million in tax relieve via a combination of breaks on property and sales taxes.
On education, DeSantis said he would double per-student spending from this year’s budget. He also said he would overhaul the state’s “Best and Brightest” rewards program for teachers. Currently, bonuses are tied to the SAT and other college entrance exams. Long criticized by teachers, DeSantis said he proposes $500 million to reward and recruit teachers that would ditch the testing requirement.
“Using college entrance test scores to qualify, that doesn’t make sense,” DeSantis told reporters at a news conference. “You’re already in a professional setting. Teaching is as much about the heart as it is the head.”
He said he’s proposing more than $9 billion for infrastructure. When asked if this was in coordination with Florida Senate plans to invest heavily in expanding and building toll roads throughout rural parts of the state, DeSantis said only that he was aware of those plans and was interested to know more.
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But he also stressed there were urgent transportation needs to be met in urban areas of the state.
“Our approach is relieving congestion in areas like Miami and Central Florida,” DeSantis said. “It will obviously require resources.”
He said Florida deserves more money back from the federal government because of the way national gas taxes are divvied up and redistributed. He said he’s spoken with Sen. Marco Rubio and legislation that would provide additional federal money on transportation.
DeSantis’ budget is largely a leftover of his predecessor — agencies had to submit their budgets in October, when Rick Scott was still governor.
And it’s just a guide. The Legislature ultimately decide what’s in it, although the governor can veto some items. Last year, Scott proposed a record $87.4 billion budget, but lawmakers ultimately passed an $88.7 billion budget.
DeSantis’ budget comes amid looming concerns about the state’s financial future.
The Legislature’s chief economist has been warning for months that the nation, and Florida, should brace for a likely recession after a decade of economic growth.
Then there are the costs from hurricanes Irma and Michael, which will cost the state billions.
And there’s the algae blooms and red tide that threaten the state’s main economic driver: tourism.
Already, local officials are reporting big drops in tourism in areas affected by red tide last year. Hotel occupancy in Sarasota County, for example, fell 11.8 percent in the last three months of 2018, the sharpest decline since after 9/11.
Sales taxes are the largest source of general revenue money, the dollars that lawmakers have the most discretion over spending, and they’re vulnerable to changes in tourism.