Florida Budget Includes Millions for Election Security

Gov. Ron DeSantis has proposed a record $91.4 billion state budget for the next fiscal year, which is more than $400 million higher than the current year and includes spending millions to protect election systems.

by Emily L. Mahoney & Lawrence Mower, Tampa Bay Times / November 19, 2019
Voters cast their vote in Lexington, S.C., on Jan. 21, 2012. The House passed an election security measure Thursday that would require voting systems to use backup paper ballots in federal contests. (C. Aluka Berry/The State/TNS) TNS

(TNS) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday proposed a record $91.4 billion state budget for the next fiscal year, including spending an additional $1 billion on teacher raises.

The proposed budget is more than $400 million higher than the current year and includes plans to spend millions to protect the state’s elections systems and hire hundreds of new prison guards.

“I think all the stuff we’ve laid out is doable, possible, and I think it will make a real impact with the state of Florida,” DeSantis told reporters on Monday. “We are trying for bolder, brighter and better, and that’s just going to be our mantra.”

The centerpiece of DeSantis’ 2020-21 budget are his two proposals to raise the pay of Florida teachers in an effort to mitigate the state’s teacher shortage.

His pitch is to raise the minimum salary for all classroom teachers to $47,500 and create a new bonus program for teachers and principals, announced last week.

The budget released Monday provided new details about how that money would be distributed, a major question considering past efforts to raise teacher salaries by then-Gov. Rick Scott were stymied at the local level. State law dictates that any change in teacher pay must go through school boards, allowing for teachers’ unions to be able to bargain over the outcome.

DeSantis’ budget would insert the money for both the raises and the bonuses into a specific per-student funding mechanism with explicit language outlining how it should be spent.

House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, generally commended DeSantis’ budget on Monday, but added that “the details of his ambitious teacher-pay program remain obscure — not a small matter.”

The Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union, said DeSantis is advocating for “removing pay decisions from local hands” and “yet another iteration of Florida’s failed bonus plans.”

The governor also recommended a per-student increase of $50 to the “base student allocation,” flexible spending that districts are allowed to use on everything from electric bills to salaries. That’s a smaller increase than this year’s $75 per student, but still heftier than 2018, when it was increased by 47 cents, a figure that drew rebukes from superintendents.

In February, DeSantis recommended a $91.3 billion budget for his first fiscal year in office. But that budget was mostly a leftover of his predecessor. Agencies submitted their budget requests months earlier, when Rick Scott was still governor.

Lawmakers, who actually craft the budget, slimmed it by roughly $200 million during the legislative session, and DeSantis vetoed another $131 million in projects before signing it.

Except for teacher raises, DeSantis is not proposing radical changes to the state budget. More than a third of the budget is federal money that the governor and lawmakers have little discretion over. About a quarter of the budget is made up of state trust funds, money raised through fees that are assigned to particular projects, such as roadbuilding.

The largest slice of the budget, an estimated $35 billion for the next fiscal year, comes mostly from sales taxes, and the Legislature has broad discretion over how that money is spent. Although state economists are expecting a recession on the horizon, they’re predicting an additional $1.4 billion in new revenue.

For the next fiscal year, DeSantis would spend:

$1.3 million to hire 10 people dedicated to elections cybersecurity, something the Secretary of State’s office has been asking for for years. $8.3 million and create 20 new positions within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to create the nation’s first threat assessment program, an effort to stop mass shooters and other domestic terrorists. $50 million for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency, maintaining the same funding it received this year. $322 on Everglades restoration projects, including multiple reservoir projects, $150 million for water quality improvements and $50 million for springs restoration. $1.4 billion in state and federal dollars for areas hit by hurricanes Hermine, Matthew, Irma and Michael. $1 million on Burmese python removal in the Everglades, which includes reward money for hunting the invasive species and $100,000 in overtime for state workers. About $387 million from the state’s affordable housing trust fund for affordable housing across the state. The Legislature has usually spent those dollars on other projects. The budget is also notable for what it doesn’t include:

It devotes no new money to implement Amendment 4, which restored the right to vote to nearly all felons in Florida. Because of a law passed by the Legislature, the state is likely to spend millions creating a database for felons to easily check whether they’re eligible to vote. But how much that effort will cost hasn’t yet been decided. For the most part, state workers would not see raises. Tuition at state universities would not increase. And it doesn’t include millions of dollars and hundreds of new positions that prosecutors and public defenders asked for. The governor’s office said it was waiting on a state study on prosecutor and public defender caseloads before taking another look at their requests. DeSantis also touted his recommendation for additional money for the state’s Department of Children and Families, though the proposal is a fraction of the $275 million requested by the department before the Legislature earlier this year.

More than $97 million in DeSantis’ plan would be set aside for a bevy of services, from additional adoption subsidies to more money for quality assurance and oversight functions that had previously been delegated to the state’s largely privatized child welfare system.

The budget also sets aside some money — $56.5 million — to slightly ease a 21,900-person waiting list for home and community based services funded by Medicaid through the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. The money would add about 1,200 people in crisis to the program; about 740 people in crisis have been enrolled annually, according to the agency’s documents.

But the plan does not elaborate in detail on a pending redesign of that overall Medicaid waiver program, which has drawn criticism from the Legislature for overspending funds, though those funds are allocated by lawmakers.

Notably, DeSantis incorporated Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch’s request for new money to begin transitioning a third of the state’s prisons from having their correctional officers on 12-hour shifts back to 8.5-hour shifts. The money would allow for the hiring of 292 new officers.

When presenting to lawmakers this fall, Inch painted a grim picture of prison staffing, describing how the long shifts had been contributing to burnout and high turnover and exacerbated prison violence and contraband.

During the budget announcement, DeSantis said he agreed with the assessment by Inch, formerly the director of the federal Bureau of Prisons.

“The morale has been low and General Inch has been to a lot of these different organizations at the federal level, the military, and I think he sees the problem,” he said.

DeSantis also proposes to add prison teachers and investigators, a move his office said would help the department resolve their cases of alleged officer misconduct, including recent prison beatings.

In addition, DeSantis is requesting an increase of $25 million for mental health services in schools.

For Florida’s universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, called Voluntary Prekindergarten, the governor is proposing a small increase in per-student funding, from $2,437 to $2,486. However, that amount is still below the $2,500 doled out when the program was first created in 2002.

©2019 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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