Florida lawmakers end brief overtime with budget approval

TALLAHASSEE — Forced into overtime by a standoff over spending, the 2018 Legislature ended with a rare Sunday session, capped by lawmakers approving an $88.7 billion state budget along with a flurry of election-year tax breaks.

The session’s last month was shadowed by the Valentine’s Day massacre of 14 students and three adults at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The event spurred gun-control demonstrations at the Florida Capitol, and lawmakers responded with a $400 million school security and mental health package, along with new limits on gun purchases, signed into law Friday by Gov. Rick Scott.

“We had an incredible session,” Scott said after lawmakers adjourned, following an extended session that lasted just over an hour Sunday. “But probably the most important thing we did this year was, we listened to the families of Parkland.”

While dozens of students from the school joined demonstrators at the Capitol calling for a ban on assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines, those efforts by House and Senate Democrats failed to get a hearing from the Republican-ruled Legislature.

Instead, heightening school security and mental health treatment became the Legislature’s focus. Within hours of Scott’s bill-signing, the National Rifle Association filed a federal lawsuit challenging its decision to raise the age for buying a gun to 21.

The measure also imposes a three-day waiting period for all gun purchases, a ban on bump stocks, used to turn semi-automatic weapons into machine guns, and makes it easier for courts and law enforcement to keep guns away from the mentally ill.

The $400 million post-Parkland package rippled through the budget approved Sunday by a 95-12 vote in the House and in the Senate by a 31-5 count.

The two-month session was scheduled to end Friday, but negotiations between the House and Senate got bogged down, forcing lawmakers to extend into Sunday.

The $171 million in tax breaks was less than lawmakers would typically push in an election year, as legislators scrambled to find dollars for the school shooting response.

The tax cuts include $45.4 million in exemptions and refunds for homes and businesses damaged by Hurricane Irma; $38.5 million for a seven-day hurricane supplies sales-tax-holiday and a three-day holiday for back-to-school purchases; and a $32.2 million reduction in the business rent tax.

House Ways and Means Chair Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said the response to the Parkland school shooting tightened spending across the board.

“It came out of the tax package, it came out of everywhere. … We had to reorient the K-12 budget so some of the increase applies to school hardening …. We did the best we could with available dollars,” Renner said.

Much of the $101-per-pupil increase for Florida’s 2.8 million school children will be devoted to paying for heightened school security and mental health demands.

The increase also is about half of what Scott proposed last fall and amounts to an average increase of just over 1 percent, bringing per-pupil spending to $7,408.

During debate last week, House PreK-12 Budget Chair Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, defended the school spending, saying it avoided a potential $376 million boost in local property taxes, which could’ve rolled in from rising values on homes and businesses.

Republican leaders wary of being accused of raising taxes limited additional property taxes for schools to the $107 million drawn from taxes applied to new construction.

House Democrats, though, said Florida needs to spend more on public schools and questioned $150 million in renovation and maintenance dollars lawmakers made available for charter schools, while conventional public schools get $50 million.

The spending plan for the year beginning July 1 also redirected more than half the $300 million affordable housing trust fund into other budget needs, also drawing criticism from House and Senate Democrats.

They said the shift hurts the state’s ability to recover from Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, which brought thousands of Puerto Ricans from their home island to Central Florida.

Environmental spending fared better this year than last — with $100.8 million for the Florida Forever land-buying program shut out by lawmakers last year.

Another $25 million will go to restoring the St. Johns River and Keystone Lakes region near Jacksonville, $50 million for freshwater springs and $50 million for beach renourishment.

Originally posted on Herald-Tribune by John Kennedy.