Formal budget talks begin in Florida Legislature as session's end looms

With two weeks left in the legislative session, the Florida House and Senate began formal negotiations Friday night on what could be a record $100 billion state budget for the fiscal year that will start July 1.

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, held a brief public meeting after legislative leaders and staff members worked behind the scenes to set a framework for the negotiations.

With a flood of federal stimulus money, Stargel and Trumbull said the budget is expected to end up in the neighborhood of $100 billion --- compared to $92.3 billion in the current year. 

But while the stimulus money will provide an infusion of cash, the budget also likely will include cuts in areas such as Medicaid, Stargel said. That is because programs such as Medicaid need recurring --- not one-time --- money.

The details of Medicaid cuts will be worked out during the conference negotiating process. But initial House and Senate budget plans, for example, called for large cuts in Medicaid payments to hospitals.

"We’re still having to live within our means, so there will be cuts," Stargel said. "But as we go through the conference process and the chairs work through that, we’ll see how that hashes out in exactly how those cuts occur."

Another big issue that will be worked out is how to use about $10 billion the state is expected to get from the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal stimulus law signed last month by President Joe Biden.

The House included stimulus money in its budget plan, including calling for spending $3.5 billion on deferred maintenance projects at state buildings and schools, $2 billion to offset losses during the COVID-19 pandemic to the state transportation trust fund and $1 billion to create a new emergency preparedness and response fund in the governor’s office. The Senate, however, did not put stimulus money in its plan.

"All of those issues are going to be conference issues," said Trumbull, who added that the House wants to "focus those projects on issues that are wide-ranging to our state."

A key breakthrough to start the negotiations came Friday when the House and Senate released budget "allocations" --- essentially how leaders have decided to divvy up general-revenue tax dollars among the various areas of the budget.

The biggest chunk of general revenue, $12.874 billion, was set aside for pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade education. That was followed closely by general revenue for health and human-services programs at $12.382 billion. 

The criminal and civil justice system, which includes prisons, will get $4.911 billion, while the higher-education system will get $4.56 billion, according to the allocations. Other parts of the budget, such as agriculture, the environment, transportation and economic development, will get smaller amounts.

In all, the allocations total $36.183 billion, but that tells only part of the budget story, as the state receives tens of billions of dollars from such sources as the federal government and gas taxes. Each year, federal money plays a major role in funding health and human services, particularly the Medicaid program.

The House this month approved its initial budget plan (HB 5001), totaling $97 billion, while the Senate approved a $95 billion plan (SB 2500). But those were simply opening offers in advance of the negotiations.

Committees will meet this weekend to go line by line through the different areas of the budget and try to work out differences. Unresolved issues will be kicked upstairs Monday night to Stargel and Trumbull to negotiate.

If Stargel and Trumbull are unable to agree, issues will go to Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.

Because of a legally required 72-hour "cooling off" period, the budget needs to be distributed to lawmakers on April 27 if the session is going to end as scheduled April 30.