School Safety, Prisons Draw Budget Attention For Florida Lawmakers

Florida – Florida lawmakers continued budget negotiations Thursday night, trying to find $400 million for a school-safety initiative and money to deal with costly litigation targeting the state prison system.

After striking a deal on local property taxes, the House and Senate have agreed to spend $21.1 billion on public schools in the 2018-2019 academic year, which would represent about a $100 increase per student.

But they are still trying to allocate that funding while accommodating a $400 million school-safety package, prompted by the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a Broward County high school.

An offer early Thursday evening by the House would provide $67.2 million for mental-health services in the public schools, as well as $162 million for the “safe schools” program, which provides funding for school resource officers and other security measures. The safe schools program currently receives $64.5 million a year.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who is leading the House negotiations on public school funding, said those numbers reflect the ongoing talks between House and Senate leaders on a school-safety package, which is scheduled to be taken up Friday by the Senate.

But at the same time, he said lawmakers have had to adjust funding on other education initiatives. For instance, the new House offer proposed spending $45.3 million on classroom supplies for teachers, down from an $63 million initial offer from the Senate.

“Whenever you spend $400 million somewhere, you’re going to cause some issues. We’re trying to work through this,” Diaz said.

The cost of the school-safety initiatives as well as other recent impacts on the state budget, including a decline in projected corporate income-tax collections and higher Medicaid costs, are impacting other areas of the proposed $87 billion-plus budget.

On Thursday, the Senate backed off a proposal that sought $345 million in state performance funding for the university system, agreeing with the House to leave it at $245 million, which is the current level. Negotiators also agreed on $30 million in state performance funding for the 28 state colleges, which is also the current level.

In the prison system, lawmakers are having to respond to legal settlements in cases alleging prisoners are not receiving adequate treatment for infectious diseases, mental health issues and disabilities.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who is leading the Senate negotiations on civil and criminal justice issues, estimated the new budget will contain about $100 million in response to those legal mandates involving the Department of Corrections.

Lawmakers agreed Thursday to immediately spend $21 million on treatment for prisoners with hepatitis C, an infectious disease that may affect as many as one out of every five prisoners in the system. Treatment can cost as much as $37,000 for a 12-week regimen.

Additionally, the House proposed spending $19.2 million on the treatment during the upcoming 2018-2019 fiscal year, with the Senate offering $15 million.

The House and Senate agreed Thursday to spend another $42.6 million on mental-health treatment, including hiring 289 people.

Lawmakers are also in agreement on spending more than $6 million to care for disabled prisoners under a court settlement that came after advocates alleged the state was discriminating against prisoners who were deaf, blind or confined to wheelchairs.

Despite the overall challenges, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the budget negotiations remain on target for a final deal by Tuesday, which will allow lawmakers to vote on the spending plan on March 9, the last day of the 2018 session.

“We’re having great communications. It’s been a very smooth process,” Bradley said.

In negotiations on agriculture and natural-resources issues, Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, said lawmakers have agreed to set aside $50 million for the state’s natural springs and $50 million for beach renourishment.

The chambers remain apart on issues such as water projects and the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee. The House has proposed $50 million for the federal dike project.

The two sides have also settled at $500,000 for bear-resistant trash containers and $110 million for a petroleum tank clean-up program administered by the Department of Environmental Protection.

In health-care negotiations, House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said the distribution of Medicaid dollars to Florida’s hospitals is “one of the big areas of the budget that is left to be negotiated.”

The Senate wants to replace an existing system that favors safety-net facilities that serve a greater percentage of poor and disabled patients with a plan that would increase base Medicaid payments for all hospitals.

“We are much more sympathetic to the safety nets that provide exceptional amounts of indigent care,” Trujillo said. “The Senate is not. So we are working toward that end of really protecting the safety nets.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers agreed to direct $10 million to provide “transition” payments for nursing homes that will be adversely affected by a new payment system, which the Legislature approved last year and goes into effect in the upcoming year.

“We’re very grateful the Legislature recognized that we needed some transitional help,” said Emmett Reed, executive director of the Florida Health Care Association, a statewide nursing-home group. “It’s huge.”

— News Service staff writers Jim Turner and Christine Sexton contributed to this report.

Photo courtesy Jiri Flogel and Shutterstock.com.

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