Florida Gov. DeSantis signs $101.5 billion state budget, helped by federal cash

Also, $1,000 bonuses are paid to teachers, principals, first responders and correctional officers.

John Kennedy, Capital Bureau
USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Florida's $100 billion state budget

TALLAHASSEE – After vetoing $1.5 billion, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Wednesday a $101.5 billion state budget that spends heavily on public works projects, the environment and $1,000 bonuses for many Floridians on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spending plan for the year starting July 1 is by far the largest in state history – 10% bigger than the current budget. And it’s propped up with billions of dollars in federal aid, much of it opposed by Republicans in Congress but a windfall for Florida’s Republican governor.

See the list:What did Gov. Ron DeSantis veto from the state budget?

Gov. Ron DeSantis shows the signed 2021-22 state budget he had just signed Wednesday in New Smyrna Beach. State Sen. Tom Wright, left, and state Rep. Webster Barnaby, right, applaud.

“The budget really reflects a state government that is meeting the core concerns of Floridians,” DeSantis said before signing the measure during a stop at a New Smryna Beach restaurant.

Even though the flush of federal cash staved off what had been projected to be a dire budget year, DeSantis credited much of the state’s financial solvency to his own decision-making and his opposition to broader lockdowns of the economy.

The biggest veto was eliminating $1 billion in federal money that lawmakers steered toward creating a new emergency preparedness and response fund that DeSantis acknowledged failed to comply with guidelines from Washington.

In the spending plan, $1,000 bonuses are paid to teachers, principals, first responders and correctional officers — cash portrayed by GOP leaders as a thank you for the work so many Floridians did during the pandemic.

State workers also will be brought up to a minimum wage of $13-an-hour – a $43 million provision promoted by Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, in advance of statewide minimum wage increases approved by voters last fall.

The budget is fortified by almost $7 billion in federal aid already received for schools and to cover the state’s Medicaid enrollment – which provides health care to 4.6 million Floridians, more than one in five residents. Those numbers have spiked with the pandemic’s job layoffs.

Last year's budget was slashed:DeSantis slashes $1 billion in spending from state budget because of coronavirus

Washington windfall helps:GOP’s DeSantis helped by windfall from Washington Democrats

Lawmakers, though, also earmarked another $6.7 billion from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan for public works projects, environmental programs and for reserves, which the budget also swells to what DeSantis said Wednesday could be about $10 billion by July 1.

Every Republican in the U.S. House and Senate voted against the American Rescue Plan, but Florida’s GOP-led Legislature found ample ways to spend the state’s share.

"I know it pains Gov. DeSantis to admit it, but President Biden saved the day by providing billions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan to keep Florida’s economy afloat and allow us to do things like provide teacher bonuses," said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa. "It’s unfortunate that the truth of the matter gets lost in the Florida Republicans’ partisan narrative

DeSantis, who is seen as a potential White House aspirant in 2024, took some time Wednesday to criticize the Washington spending which helped Florida avoid budget woes.

“In the last 15 months, this federal government has added more to the debt than we’ve ever seen since World War II, in such a short period of time,” DeSantis said. “And my view of that is just, look, there’s got to be something that’s got to be done. The bill’s got to come due somehow. Whether that’s higher interest rates, higher inflation, I’m not sure. But it is a concern.”

Still, for now the budget is robust – a marked contrast from last year, when DeSantis vetoed $1 billion mostly to shore up what became a lean COVID-19 year of job losses, business closures and a tourist industry frozen in place.

DeSantis, who refused to issue a statewide mask mandate, shuttered the state economy for only a little over a month in spring 2020. While Florida urban counties enacted stricter requirements, DeSantis’ defiance of calls for broader closures have become a badge of honor for him as the state economy recovers.

In his budget-signing letter to Secretary of State Laurel Lee, DeSantis noted, “while other states kept locking people down, Florida lifted people up; the result is a strong economy with revenues of the state continuing to exceed expectations.”

Along with vetoing the $1 billion emergency fund – which was aimed at giving the state more ready cash for hurricane clean-up – most of the remaining $500 million in vetoes cancelled trust fund sweeps and a decision by lawmakers to put federal money into a restricted reserve fund.

Still, dozens of other hometown road, water and sewer projects, and community programs also lost varying levels of state cash through vetoes.

Among them: Sarasota County’s Dona Bay watershed restoration project had $500,000 vetoed; Volusia County lost $400,000 for a water resiliency effort; Palm Beach County had $3 million vetoed from a historic infrastructure plan; and emergency operations centers in Brooksville, Fort Walton Beach, Mount Dora and Venice all lost state funds through the governor’s vetoes.

Tallahassee Community College had $50,000 vetoed from an apprenticeship program; Pasco-Hernando Community College lost $1 million for a performing arts center; and the State College of Florida was denied $250,000 for its nursing center of excellence.

All told, the level of vetoes was modest compared to past years. Republican leaders in the Legislature didn’t squawk.

“We are certainly in a better place today than when we started our budget planning last summer,” said Simpson, the Senate president.

While the state’s 2.6 million school children will draw a modest $53 per-student increase – just over a one percent boost – bonus payments to teachers and principals also are complimented by $550 million for teacher pay raises intended to bring minimum salaries to $47,500.

It’s the second year of the teacher pay program.

“Given the circumstances, the final budget is a win for our students and public schools,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

But he said the school spending still doesn’t do enough for veteran teachers and support staff, while directing too many state dollars toward private schools – long a favorite approach of Florida’s Republican leaders.

“It is not perfect,” Spar concluded.

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport