Virus siphons money from teachers, tax breaks

Bobby Caina Calvan
The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE — With uncertainty over how the outbreak of COVID-19 could affect the state's economy, Florida lawmakers scaled back tax breaks and reduced spending on teacher raises to help fatten the state's emergency reserves by $300 million as the virus continued to threaten public health and key industries.

Legislative negotiators announced Saturday a budget deal that would fund 3% across-the-board raises for state employees, send $100 million to the state's land conservation program and give the state's lowest-paid teachers a significant pay boost.

With budget negotiations finished, a finally tally of the Legislature's spending priorities still needs to be finalized into a final document that will be delivered to both chambers for approval in the coming days.

When the number crunching is over, lawmakers are expected to send Gov. Ron DeSantis a spending plan of roughly $92 billion.

"I wanted to thank the Legislature for powering through," DeSantis said Saturday at a news conference focused on the state's response to the virus outbreak.

While lawmakers agreed to $500 million toward teacher pay raises — $400 million to boost the minimum teacher salary to $47,500 and $100 million for other pay raises — the money was much less than the $900 million that DeSantis had requested when he proclaimed last fall that it would be the "Year of the Teacher."

But as the session neared its end, the conservation was more about the coronavirus as Florida lawmakers joined their fellow Floridians and other Americans in worrying about the viral outbreak.

As tourism and other economic sectors become harder hit by travel restrictions and as people retrench from everyday activities, concern is growing that a downturn in the state's economy could cause government revenues to fall dramatically.

"We are prepared when it comes to dealing with any potential revenue downturns because of what's happening with the coronavirus," said Sen. Rob Bradley, his chamber's lead budget negotiator.

As a result, lawmakers moved to create a $300 million financial buffer. To free up the money, lawmakers siphoned money from key proposals.

"We tried to find opportunities throughout our state budget," said Rep. Travis Cummings, who led the state House in budget conferences.

Both sides had seemed willing to allocate $600 million toward teacher raises. But worry over the spreading coronavirus prompted lawmakers to rethink the amount, as well as earlier sums for a tax break package that was initially many times more than the $47.7 million eventually agreed upon.

The slimmed-down tax package provides tax "holidays" for a variety of consumer spending, including for school supplies and hurricane preparedness.