Legislature goes to OT on budget as it wraps up other bills

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Legislature paved the way for teacher raises, compensation for college athletes and passed an expanded school voucher program Friday — the last day to consider bills before going into overtime to settle the state budget.

Lawmakers scrambled to get a number of bills passed, sending some back and forth between the House and Senate chambers and resolving differences on others.

The one thing the Legislature is required to do is pass a budget, and that didn’t happen before the last day of the annual 60-day session. Instead, House and Senate leaders planned work this weekend to iron out differences in a state spending plan that’s getting more complicated by the coronavirus.

“There is nothing that we can compare this to. You’ve never had a situation where major theme parks are closing, where it’s spring break week in Miami and they’re trying to shut down as many things as they can. That’s never happened,” said Republican Sen. Anitere Flores.

Florida has no income tax so its revenue is largely reliant on sales tax that’s boosted by the tourism industry. Lawmakers were rethinking several budget items, including a package of tax cuts and how much money to put into an emergency account in case state revenue plummets.

In the meantime, the Senate unanimously approved a bill that paves the way for teacher raises. The bill requires local school districts use money set aside by the Legislature to raise minimum teacher salaries and provide raises for teachers who are already above that minimum.

But how much money will be sent to districts won’t be determined until the budget is settled. Still, teacher raises are a priority for GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis and both Republicans and Democrats praised the bill.

The bill also gets rid of a teacher bonus program that was criticized for not being applied equitably.

“These are dollars that are going to go to public school teachers. This is a bill that listens to our teachers who for the last several years have told us that, ‘We don’t want your bonus program. In fact, we find it a little bit offensive,’” said Republican Sen. Rob Bradley.

Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, a former Leon County school superintendent, said Florida started the school year with 2,000 vacant teacher positions.

“We’ve got to do something about attracting and retaining top quality teachers and support staff,” Montford said. “It’s harder and harder to get young people to go into the profession for a number of reasons. One is salary.”

On another money matter, the House acquiesced to the Senate’s version of a bill that would allow college athletes to ink compensation deals. The governor has already pledged his support for the bipartisan measure, which was embroiled in last-minute drama when the House sought to include a provision that would give athletes health insurance.

If signed into law by the governor as expected, Florida would become the second state behind California to block the NCAA from prohibiting student athletes from profiting from their names and likeness. However, Florida’s law would go into effect in July 2021 — two years before California’s.

Democrats weren’t so supportive of a bill that also passed on Day 60 that expands a program that gives tax credits to businesses who provide lower-income families with scholarships to attend private schools.

The Legislature also took up a number of other last-minute bills while preparing to work until midnight.

Among bills sent to DeSantis were measures that would allow automated pharmacy dispensing machines, tighten regulation of amusement rides and let adults who were adopted as children request their birth records without their adoptive parents’ consent.

Lawmakers stripped down a tax cut package passed by the House last week given the uncertainty around the state’s economy. The House originally passed a $193 million in tax cuts that included relief for car rental companies, airlines and other companies. The final package totaled nearly $50 million in cuts and centered around sales tax holidays on back to school and hurricane supplies.

And the last bill sent to the governor before the House and Senate ended the day before midnight ensures pregnant women in prisons aren’t held in restrictive housing. It’s a response to a recent case of a woman giving birth while alone in a Broward County jail cell.


Associated Press reporter Bobby Caina Calvan contributed to this report.