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Gaetz: Most Requested Budget Appropriations Coming To NWFL

Governor Rick Scott last week cut $461 million in spending from the new budget that takes effect on Wednesday, including $82 million for the Panhandle. But there’s still a substantial chunk of change heading this way.

Northwest Florida will get an estimated $678 million for projects in areas such as transportation, economic development, the environment, the arts, and education.

“More funding will go to Escambia and Santa Rosa and Okaloosa schools this year, than ever before in the state’s history,” said Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Niceville), chairs the Senate Education Appropriations Committee.

“Escambia schools will get an $8.1 million increase for a total of $280 million,” said Gaetz. “Santa Rosa schools, an $8.2 million increase for a total of $181 million. Both Escambia and Santa Rosa, and Okaloosa, are receiving funding above the state average.”

The state average is a three percent funding increase. Escambia’s getting three and a half, with a more than four percent hike for both Santa Rosa and Okaloosa. Gaetz also inserted into the budget additional funding for school districts that have a disproportionately large number of military-related students. Okaloosa County will receive an additional $2.4 million; Escambia County will get $1.8 million, with $1.2 million going to Santa Rosa County.

The new budget also contains about $2 billion for upgrading transportation infrastructure in northwest Florida. Gaetz says a portion of that will be used to build the new Bay Bridge connecting Pensacola and Gulf Breeze.

“We were able to secure funding this year for over $500 million for the actual costs of demolition and construction,” Gaetz said. “We now have all the federal approvals necessary. I would expect that dirt will fly, and we’ll begin construction of the bridge by the end of 2016.”

Other projects to be funded include widening and upgrading Highway 98 in the Destin area, at a cost of $62 million.

Besides the budget, perhaps the highest-profile issue in both the regular and special sessions was healthcare. After a $1.2 billion cut in federal funding, lawmakers had to use $400 million to shore up the program. And Gaetz says it gets worse for fiscal year 2017.

“Next year the federal government will squeeze down even further the amount of Low Income Pool (LIP) funding, said Gaetz. “Florida dollars being held in Washington. They’ll squeeze that down further making it even more difficult for us to balance our budget.”

In addition to increased LIP support, Lakeview Center in Pensacola will receive $750,000 for mental health and substance abuse services for children. Elsewhere, the Escambia County booking and detention facility, which was destroyed by a gas explosion last year, will receive $1 million for construction and repairs.