TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Declaring he was "setting up the state for future success," Florida's new governor on Friday recommended a $91.3 billion budget for the coming year that boosts spending on schools and environment while avoiding some of the deep cuts pushed by his predecessor.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' spending plan is nearly $2 billion larger than the current year's budget, but it also includes a large amount of federal money intended to help with hurricane recovery efforts in a state that has been battered by storms the last two years.
State legislators will consider the proposal during their annual session that starts in March.
DeSantis, who was elected in November, crafted his first-ever budget plan in a way that will likely avoid any major spending battles with the Republican-controlled Legislature, while also steering clear of items that could spark loud objections from Democrats.
"We want a budget that is using taxpayer dollars wisely and that's what we've done here," said DeSantis.
He did not suggest any wide-ranging cuts to health care services as former Gov. Rick Scott, a fellow Republican, had done during his eight years. DeSantis did set aside money for what he called "tax relief," although most of the $335 million is targeted at property owners by using state money to offset potential local property tax hikes for schools.
DeSantis also wants to keep tuition rates at current levels at colleges and universities, and he is proposing enough money to cover the rising costs of Bright Futures, Florida's popular merit-based financial aid program. He did not recommend across-the-board pay raises for state employees, but did recommend keeping health insurance premiums unchanged.
DeSantis wants to boost the amount spent on each public school student by 3 percent, or $224 more a year. Some of that increased money would go to school safety programs that were set up after a 2018 massacre at a high school in Parkland that left 17 people dead. But more than $400 million would go to a still-undefined bonus program for teachers and principals.
This new program, which could be announced as soon as next week, would replace the state's existing "Best and Brightest" bonus program created by legislators. It awards bonuses to teachers who received good evaluations and earned top scores on the test the teachers took in order to get into college. Florida's teacher union has sharply criticized the program and has a lawsuit pending against it.
DeSantis said rewarding teachers based on their scores on exams like the SAT "didn't make sense."
This approach drew praise from the state's main teacher union which has clashed with GOP governors in the past. Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, said that "this budget represents a step toward where we need to be. Money matters."
In his proposed budget, DeSantis is also pushing for increased spending on Everglades restoration as well as $100 million for Florida Forever, the state's land-buying program.
State Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, said in a statement that she "was encouraged to see the governor's commitment to priorities Democrats have long-embraced, especially the cleanup of our water, and increased funding for public education."
Republican State Senate President Bill Galvano also praised DeSantis' first budget, saying the recommendations "reflect many of our shared priorities not only in terms of state spending, but also with regard to setting aside ample reserves." The governor recommended leaving more than $5 billion unspent.
The budget includes $1.9 billion, most of it coming from the federal government, intended to help Florida recover from the damage left behind by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Michael. Money is being recommended for home repairs, a voluntary home buyout program for homeowners in flood-prone areas and even a program to aid businesses being set up by Puerto Ricans who have migrated to the state.
Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.