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TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers passed a $101.5 billion budget laden with federal COVID-19 relief cash and ended the 60-day legislative session Friday after sealing several political wins for Gov. Ron DeSantis by passing nearly all of his agenda.
They also passed a tax cut bill, HB 7061, that includes a 10-day sales tax holiday for back-to-school items starting July 31 and a 10-day sales tax holiday on hurricane preparedness items starting May 28.
New this year is a “freedom week” sales tax holiday July 1-7 on tickets to live music, sports, or theater events, entry to a museum or state park or festival.
The bill will save consumers and cost state and local governments $196.3 million, according to state economists’ estimates.
DeSantis had already seen many of his priorities approved before the day began, including an anti-riot bill, new restrictions on mail ballots and other election changes, liability protections from COVID-19 claims for businesses, a Big Tech crackdown and a ban on “vaccine passports.”
His fellow Republicans in charge of the Legislature largely acceded to his requests on the budget, too, including $1,000 bonuses for first responders, teachers and principals for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That’s on top of a $50 million salary increase for teachers as well.
“People were predicting major cuts to K-12 education,” DeSantis said of the dire forecasts at the start of the pandemic in March 2020. “We were able to protect K-12. We also continued our momentum on teacher pay where we’re increasing the average minimum salary.”
“We lifted people up while many other states kept locking them down. We’ve had open schools; we’ve had open businesses,” he added.
It includes $22.4 billion for K-12 schools, a $532 million increase on the current year, amounting to $7,795 in per student funding, a $38.71 hike. There’s $1 billion for an emergency management fund to help respond to hurricanes and other disasters more quickly and $1 billion for a grant fund for local governments coping with the effects of sea level rise.
Those victories, though, were helped by $10.2 billion in federal money from the American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed into law in March. Democrats chafed at GOP lawmakers’ refusal to use some of those funds for rent relief, small business loans and other direct aid to people who suffered because of the economic shock of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Democrats stressed that the budget was forecast to carry a $2 billion shortfall before the federal money helped bail Florida out. Republicans praised DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic, reopening the state faster than other governors and helping to result in rosier revenue forecasts as the tourism-based economy rebounded somewhat.
“I think that was due to, obviously, Governor DeSantis policies,” House budget chief Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, said of the new revenue estimates. “We catapulted out of this pandemic, and it really set us up for tremendous success.”
Partisan tensions percolated throughout the session and threatened to boil over Thursday when Republicans tacked an amendment banning transgender women from competing in women’s high school and college sports onto a larger charter school bill.
Democrats had already been fuming about GOP leaders’ refusal to increase unemployment benefits and their decision to cut affordable housing funding.
“This is the first legislative session since a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic where over 35,000 Floridians died and our Republican leadership focused on culture wars almost nonstop from the first day of session,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando.
Another late change made to the charter school bill, SB 1026, led to a rerun of the transgender fight on Friday. The bill included a provision delaying the effective date of a law passed last year allowing college athletes to make money off of their name, image or likeness from July 1 to July 2022.
After drawing the ire of coaches and players for delaying the effective date of that measure until July 2022 as part of a charter school bill, Republicans reversed course Friday and brought up another bill, HB 845, and amended it to revert back to current law, which would allow college athletes to cash in on their name starting July 1.
House Republicans also inserted a provision in the bill banning public dollars from being used to pay for memberships in organizations that boycott Florida. Democrats saw it as a clear shot at the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which has threatened not to hold tournaments in states with anti-transgender laws. But they also noted it wouldn’t do anything, as Florida’s public universities pay their NCAA fees with privately raised funds.
Still, Democrats bemoaned the move, even as they supported fixing the measure for college athletes, because of the partisan power flex Thursday.
“This is what happens when you become drunk on power,” said Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach.
Democrats are outnumbered by Republicans in the House 78-42 and in the Senate 24-16, so they are largely powerless to stop most major bills. But tensions among Senate Democrats in the final week helped fracture the caucus as it tried to thwart DeSantis’ agenda.
Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, was ousted as Senate Minority Leader and replaced by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, earlier in the week. That tension lingered Friday as Farmer chided Book for skipping a vote on HB 403, a bill removing some restrictions on home-based businesses.
After the Senate passed the bill on a tight 19-18 vote, Farmer called a point of order, noting Book and two other senators, Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, and Ileana Garcia, R-Miami, didn’t vote, a violation of Senate rules obligating members to vote if they’re present.
The Senate then asked the House to return the bill, but the House refused, sending the measure to DeSantis’ desk.
One bill touted by DeSantis didn’t make it to the finish line. Big business lobbies, such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida, voiced major concerns over HB 969, which would have allowed customers to sue businesses that grant access to their private data to third parties without their consent.
DeSantis had highlighted it as part of his push against Big Tech monopolies, but business groups worried it would apply to all businesses.
Lawmakers, who adjourned at 2:40 p.m., won’t be gone long. They are returning May 17 for a special session to consider a $2.5 billion gambling deal signed by DeSantis with the Seminole Tribe.