Amid coronavirus threat, Florida lawmakers OK $93.2B budget

Florida lawmakers adjourned their 2020 session on Thursday after approving a $93.2 billion budget — including at least $52 million to deal with the coronavirus outbreak — that is on its way to Gov. Ron DeSantis for his signature.

But talk was already swirling through the Capitol about returning for a special session to address any shortfalls in money allocated to contain the virus.

“This is a brand new adversary that is going to require a new plan of battle,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, a Democrat who represents parts of Broward County, which has the highest concentration of infections in the state.

Legislative leaders and the governor acknowledged that much as they looked back at the 66-day session that was extended into overtime because of last-minute virus-related budget tinkering.

“There doesn’t necessarily have to be a special session,” said Senate President Bill Galvano, during an after-session news conference with House Speaker Jose Oliva. Instead of shaking hands, the two men bumped elbows.

“This virus is having an economic impact that is real,” Oliva said.

In the coming months, state officials will be closely monitoring the state’s economy, as well as tax receipts, to see where things stand.

The budget that the Legislature is sending to the governor includes $300 million in extra reserves to help address the economic hardship wrought by the outbreak. The budget also includes $25.2 million requested by the governor to directly combat the virus, and $27 million in emergency funds from the federal government.

The final day of the session began bizarrely, with House members streaming into the Speaker’s office Thursday morning for coronavirus screening. They were required to answer questions about their whereabouts over the past several weeks, including whether they’ve traveled overseas, been on a cruise ship or attended large gatherings.

They also looked into a facial scanner that took their temperature.

“It’s the only test I’ve taken since grad school that I’ve been nervous about. I wanted a low number,” said Rep. Michael Grant, a Republican from Charlotte County, which has recorded at least one COVID-19 infection.

“I thought the questions were absurd,” countered Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat whose county has recorded at least 14 confirmed cases. “I should have been asked if I’ve been to Broward County,” he said, adding that he had not.

“I didn’t want to be here. We should not be gathering in groups of more than 10.”

Legislative leaders declined to conduct the final day of session virtually, arguing that the state constitution mandates an in-person meeting to pass the state budget.

The traditional hanky drop — the ceremonial ending of the session — was done quietly without the usual gaggle of lawmakers and cameras.

In the waning days of the session, budget writers had to rethink spending on big-ticket budget items such as teachers pay, which DeSantis had sought.

In the end, the governor only got $500 million of the $900 million in new spending he requested to boost the minimum pay for new teachers and merit-based bonuses for veteran educators.

“We’re now in a different world than we were just a few weeks ago,” the governor acknowledged during a news conference with his fellow Republicans, Oliva and Galvano. “We already see that this is going to cause economic dislocations.”

One of the items lawmakers approved Thursday was a 3% raise for state workers. They also gave $100 million to preserve Florida Forever, the state’s land conservation program, and allocated an additional $25 million for mental health assistance at schools, bringing the total to $100 million.

The mental health money is meant to help children weather the challenges they confront, including thoughts of suicide and doing harm to others — a priority after the 2018 mass shooting that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Some lawmakers expressed concern about plummeting revenues because of faltering tourism, but Sen. Rob Bradley, his chamber’s chief budget writer, assured his colleagues the state has “robust reserves.”

“I’m quite comfortable that we are in a solid, secure financial position as a state to pay our bills and to deal with any circumstances that may be presented to us,” Bradley said.

Still, there was a sense of gloom about the future of the state’s finances.

“I think we would be kidding ourselves if we thought our work was anywhere close to being done,” said Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer, another Broward County lawmaker.

“I think we all know it’s extremely likely that we will have to reconvene in the coming months to deal with the dramatic effects of the coronavirus.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.