The Florida Legislature wrapped up the end of an extended 2018 session Sunday with the passing of a budget that pushes hundreds of millions of dollars toward spending on K-12 and higher education, improving school safety and battling the opioid crisis.
Approved by a 95-12 vote in the House and 31-5 vote in Senate, the $88.7 billion budget also includes $100 million for the Florida Forever program, which allows the state to purchase environmentally critical land, a $130 million increase in Medicaid funding for nursing home rates and $109 million for affordable housing.
The votes on the budget — the only bill the Legislature is required to pass each year — took less than an hour to complete after the chambers convened in a special Sunday session, which was required because lawmakers didn’t complete work on the budget until Thursday and they are prevented from voting on the state budget (HB 5001) for at least 72 hours after the the budget is completed and delivered to all lawmakers. The 2018-2019 budget will take effect July 1.
The two chambers on Sunday also passed a bill providing $170 million in various tax cuts, mostly for farmers and property owners with damages from Hurricane Irma, then made the traditional motion to adjourn “sine die” and, by 4:30 p.m., met in the Capitol Rotunda for the drop of white handkerchiefs by the House and the Senate sergeants-in-arms, Russell Hosford and Tim Hay, respectively.
Addressing the end of the session – his final as governor – Rick Scott praised House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron for their leadership during “an incredible session.”
That included the passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, drafted in just three weeks after the Feb. 14 mass shooting that left 14 students and three staff members dead at the school in northern Broward County.
The killings – and subsequent marches on the Capitol by Douglas survivors, parents, and supporters – spurred Scott and lawmakers into action. Both chambers worked quickly to produce proposals that addressed increasing mental health services for students and restricted access to firearms.
The process was proof that lawmakers could “come together” and pass bipartisan legislation, said Scott, who signed the bill Friday.
“I’m very proud of what happened,” he said Sunday, joined by members of both the House and Senate. “I’m proud to (have) stood with those families to say we did something to make schools safer.”
Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, echoed Scott’s sentiments, calling the episode a “shining moment” where Democrats and Republicans should be proud of how they worked together “in the most tragic of circumstances.”
“There is nothing we cannot do to impact…the lives of Floridians,” he said.
Before the Legislature convened for the day Sunday, Scott held another ceremony with lawmakers in the Capitol at 1:30 p.m. to sign House Bill 7055, the omnibus education bill that includes vouchers for bullied students, and Senate Bill 4, a major higher education bill that expands Bright Futures Scholarships. HB 7055 was a session priority of Corcoran, and SB 4 was likewise for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.
Under SB 4, 100 percent of the tuition and fees for some 45,000 Bright Futures students known as “academic scholars” will be covered. Additionally, the budget includes $300 per semester for textbooks and allows the scholarships to be used for summer classes.
Another 48,000 students, known as “medallion” scholars, will see their Bright Futures scholarships, which now cover about half the cost of tuition and fees, rise to 75 percent, or about $159 of the average $200 per credit hour charge for university courses. It will also cover summer classes.
The measure also expands some need-based aid programs, including doubling the state match for scholarships awarded to “first generation” college students. And it creates a new scholarship program for students from farmworker families.
Negron said the were the result of listening to students at universities around the state. Now, more students will finish their education on time and in less debt, he said, calling Scott “the governor who restored Bright Futures to its promise for Florida families and its students.”
HB 7055 will let students who face bullying or harassment in public schools transfer to private schools using tax-funded vouchers. The vouchers will be paid for by vehicle buyers, who in registering their cars will be able to select the option of donating a portion of their sales tax to the “hope scholarship” program. It is expected to generate $41.5 million for the vouchers in the next year.
The law builds on Corcoran’s two-year effort as House speaker to expand voucher and charter school programs. The legislation is coupled with a budget that provides $140 million to the “schools of hope” program, which is aimed at allowing more charter schools to serve students in areas with “persistently” low-performing schools.
Corcoran said the goal is to give “all children of all districts, all neighborhoods, a real chance at a world-class education.”
The new law also contains a controversial provision that could force teachers’ unions to disband if their membership falls below 50 percent of the employees they represent in the contract-negotiating process. If decertified, the unions would be forced to reorganize and seek a new vote to represent the teachers.
“Nobody should be forced to be led when a majority of the people you are leading don’t want to be there,” Corcoran said.
Sunday’s pomp was the cap on a whirlwind session that started under a cloud of sex-related scandals in the Senate and ended with the passage of some of the state’s first gun-control laws in more than two decades.
Opening day of the session was abuzz with claims from an anonymous website that Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens were “actively engaged in inappropriate extramarital activities with each other.” The two released a joint statement acknowledging that “our longtime friendship evolved to a level that we deeply regret.”
It was the latest sex-related controversy in the Senate, which had seen the pre-session resignations of Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater and Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens of Atlantis.
Latvala, head of the budget committee and a candidate for governor, resigned from the Senate in December after an investigation found credible evidence of sexual misconduct. Clemens gave up his seat in October after admitting to an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.
The controversies eventually gave way to the routine operations of the session, in which lawmakers filed hundreds of bills,including one that would ban what Republicans call sanctuary cities, another that would prohibit sports franchises from building on municipal and other public lands and yet another to give the state rather than local governments the power to regulate vacation rentals of homes. All those measures were dead by the end of the session.
In the latter half of the session, practically all issues gave way to the Douglas High school security bill and the budget, although an opioid crisis bill was passed late Friday night.
In the budget, legislators, of course, did pass a $21.1 billion spending plan for the 67 school districts. It would boost per-student funding by $101.50 to $7,408 during 2018-2019. It also means a $485 million increase in state funding and local property taxes.
The annual school funding formula also will include a new category for mental-health funding with $69 million. It would increase the “safe schools” program, which helps pay for school resource officers, to $162 million, a $97.5 million increase.
For the opioid crisis fight, about $53 million will be allocated for the treatment and prevention to battle the state’s opioid crisis. About $991,000 will be used to upgrade a statewide database known as the prescription drug monitoring program, to interface with physicians’ offices and electronic health records used by doctors.
An additional $14.6 million in annually recurring funds will go to the Department of Children and Families to increase access to addiction treatment. The Office of State Court Administrator also would receive $6 million for medication-assisted treatment and the Florida Department of Health $5 million for emergency opioid antagonists to be made available to emergency responders.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.