Legislative Roundup: House and Senate lawmakers offer their budgets on local and statewide projects
The 2023 Florida legislative session is heading into its fourth week and the main topic will likely be money. Here to talk about the ongoing session is Rachel Witbracht, director of government relations for the University of West Florida.
Bob Barrett: Rachel, we’ll get to the budgets in a minute, but first there was significant activity in the house on guns, give us an update on that.
Rachel Witbracht: Last week, the Florida House passed the permitless carry gun bill widely on party lines. It was a 76 to 32 vote, so this would get rid of permits for concealed carry licenses in the state of Florida. There was an amendment that was quickly withdrawn from Republican Mike Beltran to allow for open carry, but that was quickly struck down. The House and the Senate disagree on open carry, or permitless carry. So, it'll be interesting to see how they come together and what bill ends up on the governor's desk.
Barrett: So, this has been passed by the House. What's the Senate look like on this?
Witbracht: The Senate differs. (Senate) President Passidomo is a little bit more moderate compared to (House) Speaker Renner. She doesn't believe that we should have permitless carry, whereas the House seems to be a little bit more conservative on that side.
Barrett: But we're pretty sure that if that does get to the governor's desk, he's signing.
Witbracht: Absolutely. That's been a priority for him. There were rumors that there was going to be a special session prior to this regular legislative session — that never happened. So, we expected to see this early on, and it's happened.
Barrett: Coming up this week. It's going to be a lot of money talks. The budgets of both the House and the Senate have been put forth. And they're only $700 million apart.
Witbracht: Yeah, just a tiny $700 million apart. The House total offer was $112.9 billion, and then the Senate total offer was $113.6 billion.
Barrett: So, now they get together and they start conferencing and try to work out the differences. Is this done with each individual project, or do they try to make a grander deal?
Witbracht: So, yes and no. Right now, they have some similarities and differences between the House version and the Senate version of the budget. The projects that have the same amount in both the Senate and the House version, those will be closed out. So they won't negotiate those. The ones that do differ, they'll go line by line, project by project, and negotiate those. And a lot of the bigger projects, water projects specifically, a lot of the times, and then your capital outlay projects for the state, those are used as bigger bargaining chips for the smaller projects.
Barrett: And it's interesting how far apart the two houses are on some of the projects. I'll look at some of the local environmental projects. Pensacola Perdido Bay Estuary Restoration. The Senate is offering $750,000, whereas the House $375,000. The other one, Northwest Florida Estuary Water Quality protection. The Senate has $2 million on that. And the house has bupkis.
Witbracht: Absolutely. And that's pretty typical. The House seems to take a more fiscally conservative approach to the budget, whereas the Senate always starts out funding a little bit more. And then they go back and forth, and they always end up somewhere in the middle.
Barrett: What are some of the local projects we can look at?
Witbracht: So, specifically for WUWF. Both the House and the Senate agreed to fund a backup generator and transfer switch for the station, which is something I know has been a priority for WUWF for a while. They agree on both, $593,000, so that'll be closed out and hopefully when it gets to the Governor's desk, it'll be passed. And then the House put in a project for the Veterans Park downtown for restrooms and an educational facility for $750,000. The Senate didn't have an offer on that, but seeing that Senator Broxton being from this area, we may see that change also for health care, the Baptist Child Baker Act facility, the Senate chose to fund that at $250,000. And the House chose to fund that at $1.75 million. That serves Escambia and Santa Rosa County. And something interesting policy wise with that, Representative (Pat) Maney out of Okaloosa County has a bill that he's sponsored for the past couple of years that would require DCF to initiate a transfer evaluation for Baker Act patients. And right now, DCF just really doesn't use that. So, that will kind of go in line with the budget there. And then we also have some infrastructure projects. One in Santa Rosa County, Woodbine Road and Highway 90 intersection improvements. The Senate chose to fund that at $1 million. The house had no offer. And then over in Perdido, Gulf Beach Highway drainage improvements, the Senate chose to fund that at $2.6 million and the House at $440,000. So, way off there, but I feel like they'll probably choose somewhere in the middle.
Barrett: Speaking of guns, earlier, there is a Criminal Justice Gun Violence Reduction Act for a Escambia County that there is a little disagreement on there, too.
Witbracht: There is. And gun violence has been a big topic here locally in Escambia County. Mayor D.C. Reeves has hosted these gun violence roundtables with our county sheriff and with other members of our local leadership. The House chose to fund a gun violence reduction project at $425,000. We didn't see that over in the Senate budget.
Barrett: Well, how has Senator Broxson reacted? What's his take on some of the budget activity going on?
Witbracht: We're definitely well positioned for the budget this year with Senator Broxton being the Appropriations Chair and our local Senator. He said that the proposed budget is fiscally responsible. A balanced approach to making key investments in our environmental, housing, transportation infrastructure, and clean water resources. They also have made a big push to conserving some of our money for what they call the Rainy Day Fund. And over the past two years, the iterations of the budget have put more and more money into that. And a lot of that we see when we have natural disasters. So with Hurricane Ian, whatever they needed came from that pot of money.
Barrett: One thing we have learned with the growth of Florida is that that Rainy Day Fund can get pretty big because the state's doing pretty well.
Witbracht: The state is doing pretty well. Over the last few years, COVID happened, and we expected to see a huge hit in our state budget, and actually, the opposite happened. So we just keep getting more and more money, and the budget goes up, and I think we're doing all right budget wise.
Barrett: Okay, other than money, what can we look forward to in the next couple of weeks?
Witbracht: Over the next couple of weeks, you'll see the Senate pass their permitless carry version of the bill. The budget is set to be negotiated over the next couple of weeks. So they'll enter into what they call conferencing. So you have the House version and the Senate version, and they'll go back and forth and negotiate. They get about two or three passes, depending on who's in leadership and what they decide to do. So the first round of conferencing probably, I suspect, to happen late this week or early next week. So we'll get close to an agreement on the budget.