Amid coronavirus threat, Florida lawmakers OK $93.2B budget

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Amid the backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak, Florida lawmakers have brought their 2020 session to a close after approving a $93.2 billion budget that is on its way to Gov. Ron DeSantis for his signature.

But already, talk swirled through the Capitol about a special session to address any shortfalls in money allocated to contain the spreading the virus.

“This is a brand new adversary is going to require a new plan of battle,” said Rep. Evan Jenne.

The budget includes $300 million in extra reserves to help address the economic hardship wrought by the outbreak. The budget also includes $25.2 million requested by the governor to directly combat the virus.

Before the Senate adjourned, chamber President quipped: "We're going to social distance sine die."

Sine die is the Latin phrase legislative bodies use to describe adjournment.

The final day of the session began bizarrely, with House members streaming into their Speaker's office Thursday morning for coronavirus screening. They were required to answer questions about their whereabouts in the last weeks, including whether they've traveled oversees, been on a cruise ship or attended large gatherings.

They also looked into facial scanner that took their temperature.

"It's the only test I've taken since grad school that I've been nervous about. I wanted a low number," said Rep. Michael Grant, a Republican from Charlotte County, which has recorded at least one COVID-19 infection.

"I thought the questions were absurd," countered Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, whose county has recorded at least 14 confirmed cases. "I should have been asked if I've been to Broward County," he said, which has the highest concentration of infections in the state. (He had not, he said.)

"I didn't want to be here. We should not be gathering in groups of more than 10."

Lawmakers showing symptoms associated with COVID-19 were asked to stay away.

In the Senate, members were given the option of recording themselves present during quorum attendance, then escape to their offices or another location to monitor proceedings before returning to the floor to vote.

Legislative leaders declined to conduct the final day of session virtually, arguing that the state constitution mandates an in-person meeting to pass the state budget.

The Legislature took on some significant issues during its session — which was extended by six days to address last-minute changes to budget calculations because of the virus. There were worries over a downturn in tax revenues because of a drastic virus-triggered slowdown in tourism, consumer spending and other money-generating activities.

In the waning days of the session, budget writers had to rethink spending on big-ticket budget items such as teachers pay, which DeSantis had sought.

In the end, the governor only got $500 million of the $900 million in new spending he requested to boost the minimum pay for new teachers and merit-based bonuses for veteran educators.

As part of the budget it passed Thursday, lawmakers approved 3% raises for state workers, gave $100 million to preserve Florida Forever, the state's land conservation program, and allocated an additional $25 million for mental health assistance at schools, bringing the total to $100 million.

The mental health money is meant to help children weather the challenges they confront, including thoughts of suicide and doing harm to others — a priority in the wake of the 2018 massacre that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Even as some lawmakers think they’ll have to come later this year to adjust the budget as state revenue plummets because of faltering tourism, Sen. Rob Bradley, his chamber's chief budget writer, assured his colleagues the state has healthy reserves.

“We have robust reserves,” Bradley said. “I’m quite comfortable that we are in a solid, secure financial position as a state to pay our bills and to deal with any circumstances that may be presented to us.”

Bradley also said the state has twice as much money available for unemployment assistance than it had when it weathered the Great Recession in 2008.

Still, there was a sense of gloom about the future of the state’s finances.

“I think we would be kidding ourselves if we thought our work was anywhere close to being done,” said Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer.

“I think we all know it’s extremely likely that we will have to reconvene in the coming months to deal with the dramatic effects of the coronavirus.”

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