It’s midway through the legislative session and all eyes are on the money now.
The House and Senate this week unveiled competing budget proposals for the upcoming fiscal year. And at roughly $1 billion apart, money fights are sure to abound, as lawmakers inch toward final budget negotiations.
One of the biggest points of contention so far has to do with funding for the state’s tourism industry, particularly Visit Florida, the tourism-marketing agency whose life is on the line.
Just as they did in 2017 with House Speaker Richard Corcoran at the helm, House leaders are mulling cuts to the agency. In recent years, Visit Florida has drawn fire for some of its contracts, including $1 million for a “Sexy Beaches” Pitbull deal and a $11.6 million contract with celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse.
As of this week, the House has offered $19 million to cover the agency’s expenses through October and the Senate has proposed $50 million for the agency. The proposals are millions of dollars short of the $76 million Gov. Ron DeSantis pitched for the agency earlier this year.
As the familiar fight over Visit Florida funding plays out during budget negotiations, a number of other budget recommendations will be up for debate. Among the issues stirring the pot are divides on spending for school mental health services, public hospital funding and higher education.
THE COST OF RESTORING VOTING RIGHTS
It was up to the Senate this week to take up a bill that would implement Amendment 4, the voter-approved ballot measure that says felons voting rights should be automatically restored.
The amendment granted “automatic” restoration of voting rights to felons “who have completed all terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.” The amendment excluded people “convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense.”
Under the Senate bill, felons would have to pay all restitution before they get their right to vote back, and those who served time for attempted murder would be excluded from the automatic vote restoration process. They’d also have to pay in full restitution that’s been converted to a civil judgment.
But felons and advocates of the amendment are equating the Senate proposal to a “poll tax,” that made it harder for black voters to cast their ballots.
State and local election officials, clerks of courts and prosecutors have asked lawmakers for guidance in interpreting what crimes qualify as exceptions for a felon to have their rights restored as well as what constitutes a complete sentence. That has spurred a fierce debate in the Senate and House about how to carry out the amendment.
Karen Leicht told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee she spent nearly three years in federal prison and three months on probation after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit insurance fraud in 2010. According to a judge and a former probation officer, Leicht’s sentence is over.
But Leicht said the Senate proposal (SB 7086) would shut her out of voting forever, because she owes $59 million in restitution, which was converted to a civil judgment.
“$59 million. Really? You think I can ever pay that? I’ll never vote in this state again, at this rate. That’s like a poll tax,” Leicht said, before the committee approved the measure on a 3-2, party-line vote Monday.
The House version (HB 7089) has drawn the same criticism in addition to backlash for how it is defines a felony sexual offense. The House bill includes about three dozen sex-related crimes that would be disqualifiers, including a third-time prostitution conviction.
HOUSE PAVES WAY FOR GALVANO PRIORITY
Four weeks into the legislative session, the House started moving forward a proposal that could lead to three major toll-road projects, a top priority of Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
House Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, said taking up the measure didn’t involve any trade of priorities among House and Senate leaders. He said the House could have considered the proposal earlier in the legislative session but was awaiting the numerous parts to come together.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on,” Trumbull said after the meeting. “We’re creating three different task forces. There’s a lot of money associated with it. You’re essentially adding a significant amount of roads to the state of Florida. So, it just takes a lot of time to do some vetting.”
The proposal (PCB TTA-19-02) is identical to a Senate measure (SB 7068) that awaits an appearance before the Senate Appropriations Committee. The House bill would set aside $45 million for the project.
SCHOOL MENTAL HEALTH FUNDING DIVIDE
Two suicides in the span of a week involving student survivors of the Parkland school shooting have sparked a new question at the Florida Capitol: How much mental-health money should the state provide to schools?
The Senate has proposed setting aside $100 million for schools to offer mental-health services next year, $30 million more than what the House has recommended.
House Appropriations Chairman Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island, said Wednesday he does not foresee any changes to that amount of money soon.
“I think one or two deaths or suicides is one too many, but we are throwing a lot of resources (into mental health),” Cummings told The News Service of Florida.
The mental health services are tied to parts of wide-ranging school safety bills that advanced this week in the House and Senate. But debate about mental health has largely been overshadowed by controversial provisions that would allow school districts to train and arm teachers.
While upcoming budget negotiations may lead to changes in mental-health funding at schools, Cummings said he believes the House’s $69 million recommendation is “responsible.” He also said he does not expect the House to include a spending requirement for suicide prevention.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The House and Senate rolled out their spending plans for the upcoming fiscal year, proposing smaller budgets than the $91.3 billion pitch from Gov. Ron DeSantis.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “An armed teacher will not be able to stop a student from committing suicide, but a teacher armed with suicide prevention support will be able to save so many more lives.” --- High school senior Carly Hutson, speaking to the Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee about the school-safety measure.