The Florida Legislature has a lot of work to do to pass a final budget before the end of the legislative session, according to a report from Florida TaxWatch, the independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit taxpayer research institute and government watchdog. The TaxWatch Budget Watch reveals many significant differences between the House and Senate spending plans, which will have to be ironed out in the last two weeks of session.
The report highlights differences in funding for education, water and member projects, as well as tax cuts, as being potential sticking points during budget negotiations.
When legislators return from a recess next week they are expected to begin the budget conferencing process, wherein members from both chambers negotiate differences in funding levels. The report urges members to refrain from adding new projects during the conference process, and only to resolve funding discrepancies.
"Budget conferencing is a very important step in the budget process, but it is a time to review and compromise the differences in programs already approved by the state's elected officials," said Dominic M. Calabro, president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch. "TaxWatch encourages lawmakers not to add new projects that have not been and will not be vetted by the full legislative body during conference proceedings."
Both budgets increase spending above current year funding, but the House budget is slightly higher, spending a total of $75.3 billion, or an increase over current spending by nearly $1 billion. The slightly more conservative Senate budget totals $74.9 billion, or $600 above current spending.
Each plan varies in nearly every budget category. The House appropriates more funding to education, human services and environment and transportation, but the Senate spends more on criminal justice, general government and courts.
The TaxWatch report commends the Legislature for once again retaining a healthy level of reserves that amount to close to $3 billion in both the Senate and House budgets. However, the report does reveal a number of trust fund sweeps in both budgets, a practice TaxWatch has called legislators to more carefully review. This year, the House and Senate propose to sweep $325 million and $198 million respectively from the state's trust funds.
"Sometimes sweeping trust funds into general revenue is necessary; however, the process should include transparency and accountability measures that allow lawmakers to better evaluate the need for breaking the trust," said Kurt Wenner, vice president for Tax Research.
Florida TaxWatch is a statewide, Tallahassee-based nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute that over its 33-year history has become widely recognized as the watchdog of citizens' hard-earned tax dollars.