Florida House, Senate panels OK state budgets that are $400 million apart

TALLAHASSEE — Florida House and Senate budget writers on Wednesday approved spending plans for next fiscal year that are about $400 million apart and both short of the $91.3 billion proposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The legislative budget plans easily cleared appropriations committees in both chambers, readying them for a floor vote. Ultimately, the House and Senate will convene a conference committee to work out a final budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The budget is the only bill lawmakers must pass during the 60-day legislative session, scheduled to end May 3.

"This is obviously the first major step," said Republican Rep. Travis Cummings of Orange Park, the House Appropriations Committee chairman.

The House budget came in at $89.9 billion, with the Senate proposing about $90.3 billion.

Key differences include overall spending levels on education and the environment, a $30 million split on school mental health services, Hurricane Michael recovery, affordable housing and whether to keep the Visit Florida tourism promotion office alive.

Visit Florida is set to expire in October under current law.

Visit Florida took center stage at the House hearing Wednesday. Its new president, former Republican lawmaker Dana Young, and several other speakers from across the state urged the House to approve full funding of $76 million requested by DeSantis and not let the agency shut down this fall.

The House budget only has about $19 million earmarked for Visit Florida, enough for it to wind down operations.

"We do great work, and you would miss us," Young said. "You’ve heard the term ‘don’t eat the seed corn’? We are the seed corn."

The Senate budget proposal has $50 million for Visit Florida. Several lawmakers said it’s not a smart move for such a tourist-dependent state as Florida to scrap its promotion arm.

"I do think we are playing a little bit with fire when we do that," said Rep. Evan Jenne, a Hollywood Democrat.

Later in the Senate committee hearing, Young said the $50 million would fall far short even if Visit Florida is reauthorized and that "$76 million is the sweet spot."

Ultimately, the legislative budgets moving out of committees Wednesday represent only the first markers in a debate that will consume much of the next month in Tallahassee.

"Nothing we pass will be ironclad. What we pass out will not be set in stone and will be subject to some changes," said Rep. Chris Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who chairs the House Appropriations public schools subcommittee.

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