House and Senate leaders have taken a key step toward starting negotiations on a new budget — but face hundreds of millions of dollars in unexpected costs and less tax revenue than originally thought.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said Tuesday leaders have reached agreement on “allocations,” which are big-picture numbers for the various parts of the budget such as education, health care and criminal justice. House and Senate negotiators will use those numbers as they hammer out details of each budget area.
The allocations give negotiators a week to finish the budget if the legislative session is going to end as scheduled March 9. A legally required 72-hour “cooling off” period means the budget would have to be done March 6. Bradley said it was not clear when conference committees will start the negotiations.
The House and Senate did not immediately release the allocation numbers. But Bradley said, in part, that lawmakers plan to provide $80 million in tax cuts and will fund an expansion of the Bright Futures scholarship program, a priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.
Also, the agreement means that $543.6 million in more funding will be available in the health and human services section of the budget, which includes five agencies. Bradley, however, stressed the agreement is only about overall spending and that policy differences between the House and Senate still need to be negotiated on issues including how the state will reimburse hospitals and nursing homes in the Medicaid program.
Both chambers on Feb. 8 passed budget plans for the fiscal year that starts July 1, with the Senate proposing to spend $87.3 billion and the House proposing to spend $87.2 billion. While the overall numbers were similar, the House and Senate disagreed on myriad details.
But in announcing the allocations Tuesday, Bradley said lawmakers are grappling with unexpected costs and a lower estimate of corporate tax revenue than when the House and Senate approved their budget proposals.
The biggest change stems from lawmakers’ plans to spend at least $400 million in response to the mass shooting Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 people dead. The House and Senate are quickly moving forward with bills that include taking steps to boost school safety and mental-health services.
Bradley said leaders have agreed to spend $400 million and that additional money could come through the state’s school-funding formula.
“That is something that we do because you cannot put a price, obviously, on the safety of our children,” he said.
Bradley said, however, that will affect other parts of the budget, which lawmakers are required to balance each year.
“When you take $400 million and put it towards necessary efforts, that creates challenges in other areas of the budget, and we’re up to that challenge, and we will meet those challenges,” he said.
The budget also will be tighter than originally thought because of a revised estimate last week of the state’s corporate income-tax revenue. Analysts said the state is expected now to bring in $167 million less in corporate taxes than estimated earlier.
Also, Bradley said lawmakers are faced with paying $100 million more in Medicaid expenses than what had been anticipated.
“These are bills that need to be paid. This is not a discretionary choice,” Bradley said. “These are bills that health providers have incurred pursuant to our obligations under law to provide these services to individuals. And so these are bills we will pay, because we pay our bills.”