Despite failing to meet a late Tuesday deadline to finalize a 2022-23 state budget, House and Senate negotiators did manage to approve a 5.38% pay raise for all state employees, along with setting a new, $15-an-hour minimum wage for these workers.
House budget chair Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, and his Senate counterpart, Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, agreed to the pay raise before getting bogged down amid a host of big ticket items still unsettled across a proposed budget topping $100 billion for only the second time in state history.
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About 9 p.m. Tuesday, Trumbull and Stargel sent a memo to fellow lawmakers acknowledging that they wouldn’t make a midnight deadline in time for a constitutionally required 72-hour waiting period before lawmakers can vote on the budget by Friday’s last scheduled day of the 2022 session.
Lawmakers now are certain to extend the session. But how long is needed to finish the budget work appears to be an unknown at the moment.
Along with the across-the-board pay raises, other agreements were reached to finance $20-an-hour minimum salaries for state firefighters and correctional officers. Nursing home employees also would reach $15-an-hour minimum pay as part of a 7% increase in Medicaid rates paid nursing homes that was also agreed to Tuesday.
Florida has uneven history of providing raises to state workers
Florida’s Republican-led Legislature has historically proved stingy with pay raises to public employees, many years doling out no annual hikes and keeping salaries low.
But with inflation rising and many state agencies struggling to hire and keep employees, lawmakers have adapted to a new political reality.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, last year successfully pushed to bring state workers up to a minimum $13 hourly wage. With a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2020 pushing the state’s minimum wage for all workers to $15-an-hour in 2026, Florida lawmakers now appear to be getting out slightly ahead of this shift.
While pay raises look settled, Trumbull and Stargel held a later Tuesday meeting to address dozens of other spending issues.
In another dramatic move, lawmakers dropped a House-backed $200 million redistribution of funds from 12 counties that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on school mask mandates last year.
DeSantis supported what advocates call the “putting parents first” initiative, which would have taken millions of dollars from some of the state’s biggest counties and send the money to Florida’s 55 other counties that fell in line with the governor on mask policy.
Instead, a proposal that looked close to being accepted by the two sides would put the $200 million into a school recognition program that would reward faculty and staff in “highly productive” schools that excelled even amid the challenges of the pandemic.
The 12 school districts targeted in the House’s original proposal were looking to get the $200 million penalty removed from the state’s school funding system. They apparently succeeded Tuesday, but still unclear in negotiations was whether teachers and staff in these districts would be eligible for the new school recognition awards.
The 12 districts are Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Volusia counties.
In K-12 education, negotiators reached general agreement on an almost $385-per-student increase in school funding — an almost 5% boost that would bring funding to an average $8,143 for each of Florida’s 2.9 million school kids.
But still to be settled is more than $300 million in environmental spending earmarked by the Senate for the state’s rural and family lands program under the Agriculture Department.
Simpson, the Senate president, is running for the post of Agriculture Commissioner later this year and the spending provision sought by his chamber would not take effect until January 2023, when he could potentially be in charge of the department.
The Senate’s proposal excluded current Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat and candidate for governor, from having access to the funds. But the fate of dollars for the rural and family lands program remained in flux late Tuesday.
DeSantis, Cabinet members and other state leaders also were helped by budget-writers Tuesday, who agreed to spend $31.3 million to buy two Embraer Phenom 300E executive jets, each with an 11-seat capacity, under legislation awaiting final approval.
DeSantis currently uses a $15.5 million Cessna Citation Latitude jet, bought in 2019 after he took office, succeeding former Gov. Rick Scott, a multi-millionaire, who had sold the state’s former air fleet and paid for and used his own jet for state travel.
Under the plan, DeSantis would exclusively use the Citation. The other two aircraft would be available to the lieutenant governor, Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, the House Speaker, Senate president and chairs of legislative committees and agency officials.
For the rest of Floridians, affordable housing has been the subject of calls for more money, as the state’s sizzling housing market has driven rents and home prices through the roof. DeSantis had called for pouring about $355 million into construction, home-buying and rent relief efforts.
But lawmakers have reduced that amount, targeting $209.5 million for housing initiatives, but limiting rental assistance efforts to about $100 million, with another $100 million establishing a “hometown heroes” program helping first responders, teachers and nurses with down payment assistance.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport