Budget deal funnels $1,000 bonuses to Florida first responders

House and Senate leaders Monday night finished nailing down details of a roughly $100 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year, after agreeing that first responders statewide should get $1,000 bonuses for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers also agreed to pump an additional $80 million in state and federal money into a program that provides services to help keep people with intellectual and developmental disabilities out of institutions. The infusion of money will lead to serving more people in the so-called iBudget program, though lawmakers did not immediately have an estimate of how many people would be removed from a waiting list.

The final budget details came together as leaders also agreed on about $350 million for local projects, from youth organizations and educational programs to rail safety and law enforcement. Also, lawmakers decided to provide an additional $1.2 million to increase the salaries of some state agency heads.

With an infusion of about $10 billion in federal stimulus money, the 2021-2022 budget --- which is expected to hit lawmakers’ desks on Tuesday --- will easily top the roughly $92.2 billion spending plan for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Lawmakers agreed on spending more than $6.6 billion of the stimulus money headed to Florida from the American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed last month. Among the moves Monday, the House went along with spending $208 million that Gov. Ron DeSantis had requested to cover bonuses for state and local emergency first responders, including law enforcement officers, firefighters, correctional officers and emergency medical technicians.

Also approved Monday were an extra $25 million for tourism marketing, an additional $25 million to rehabilitate the state’s springs and $56 million more for Everglades restoration. Money for tourism marketing, springs restoration and the Everglades also is included in other parts of a budget. 

"We’re trying to focus on things that were one-time, infrastructure builds," said Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican who negotiated final details with House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City. "I think water for the state of Florida is a very important issue."

Also added Monday was $50 million to fund DeSantis’ request for the Job Growth Grant Fund program, which the governor can use for regional job training and public infrastructure projects. Money for the fund had been cut out of the budget process until Monday, 

Because of a legally required 72-hour "cooling off" period, the budget is required to be finalized and printed Tuesday for the annual legislative session to end on time Friday. The House and Senate as of Monday night had not agreed on "implementing" and "conforming" bills that accompany the budget. Unlike the budget, those bills are not bound by the 72-hour review period.

Along with addressing the federal funds, the Senate on Monday decided to go along with a House plan to not reimburse the Lawton Chiles Trust Fund for $300 million that was borrowed. 

The House and Senate have not finalized whether the Lawton Chiles Trust Fund --- and its $1 billion balance --- should be eliminated from state law and the principal transferred to the general-revenue fund as the House has proposed.

The Chiles fund was created by Legislature in 1999 at the request of then-Gov. Jeb Bush to provide perpetual support for health-care programs and biomedical research. The money has come from a settlement with the tobacco industry. That settlement was made possible because the Chiles administration during the waning hours of the 1994 legislative session successfully passed a bill that altered Medicaid law to allow the state to sue tobacco manufacturers on behalf of Medicaid beneficiaries who smoked. 

The Senate on Monday also accepted an offer made by the House to reduce the amount of state money used to fund the Medicaid program after the federal government agreed to extend a 6.2 percentage-point increase in federal Medicaid funding for the first three months of the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

The Biden Administration last week extended a public health emergency because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The extension means the state will receive about $400 million in additional Medicaid money from the federal government in July, August and September. That additional federal money frees up state revenue that was previously directed to Medicaid and allows it to be used in other areas of the budget, according to legislative staff.

Meanwhile, negotiators came to an agreement on how to appropriate more than $221 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to non-public schools and nearly $41 million in federal aid to the Department of Education to provide wraparound services to homeless children and enroll them in school.

Also, Monday, the Senate agreed to spend $125 million on the New Worlds Reading Initiative, a program backed by Sprowls to deliver books to struggling readers in kindergarten through fifth grade. The House and Senate have passed a bill (HB 3) to create the program.

The budget will include a push by Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, to boost the wages of low-paid state employees to $13 an hour.

Simpson is also getting $300 million in Florida Forever funding to complete "missing links" in the Florida Wildlife Corridor. The corridor is intended to provide habitat for wide-ranging species like Florida panthers and black bears.

The state has at least three years to allocate money from the federal stimulus package. The House and Senate in recent days traded offers on how much of the money to use --- and where to spend it.

Trumbull said the Legislature has aligned closely with DeSantis, particularly on water issues.

The two chambers earlier agreed to spend $100 million of the federal money to clean up a former phosphate plant in Manatee County; $300 million on the statewide wildlife corridor under the Florida Forever program; $2 billion to offset losses to the state transportation trust fund during the pandemic; and $500 million to convert septic tanks to sewage systems.

The two sides agreed to use $500 million for the Resilient Florida Trust Fund, which is tied to a grant program that would address sea-level rise and flooding.

They also have agreed to a House plan to spend $1 billion for an emergency preparedness and response fund and to to put $350 million into the state’s Budget Stabilization Fund, which is a reserve fund.