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Florida lawmakers take first look at budget wreckage left by virus

John Kennedy
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
House Budget Chair Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City

TALLAHASSEE – Florida lawmakers took their first look Wednesday at the financial wreckage left by the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused a $2 billion shortfall in next year’s budget and threatens spending on education, health care and other programs.

House Budget Chair Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, grimly laid out the task facing the Legislature in crafting a $92-billion-plus spending plan for next year.

“We will be squeezing blood out of turnips,” Trumbull told the House Appropriations Committee.

The Legislature last dealt with budget matters in March, when the pandemic was just beginning.

Since then, the Republican-led House and Senate largely have turned all COVID-19 matters over to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has drawn plenty of heat for his leadership. But the governor has generally kept this year’s state spending plan in balance, helped by $1 billion in vetoes and $5.8 billion in federal CARES Act funding.

The budget year beginning July 1 is another story.

With the state’s tourist-driven economy staggering, revenue collections are expected to come in $3.3 billion below earlier anticipated levels for the next two years, a slump certain to force cuts in a state where 3 out of 4 tax dollars come from sales tax collections.

Trumbull said there is no doubt that a big-ticket area like education will be on the chopping block. But state aid to much smaller budget silos, like cultural programs, also will be targeted, although they’re popular with lawmakers looking to bolster hometown theaters, arts and historic preservation.

State Medicaid rolls also have skyrocketed, with hundreds of thousands of Floridians losing health insurance along with their jobs during the pandemic. The state is facing a $1.2 billion demand for state dollars to pay for the program to meet the needs of 4.6 million residents forecast to be enrolled next year.

Still, with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden pledging to push the soon-to-be Democratic-controlled Congress to approve another major stimulus package, states could be in line for federal aid that could ease the depth of the budget holes they face.

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Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said that prospect was a glimmer of hope for state budget-writers.

Trumbull, though, tried to shoot down the idea.

“We do not build our budget based on the assumption of what Congress may or may not do,” he said.

Geller, though, urged Trumbull and other Republican leaders to take a more open-minded approach. He called it a “parallel track,” where cuts in education, health care and other programs could be outlined, but pulled back if the state sees a windfall in federal aid coming before the spending plan is finalized in May.

Geller said lawmakers should be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time.”

“We should have a Plan B,” he said.