Miami Herald: Are legislators AWOL? State faces massive budget hole and no role for Legislature

Between now and Nov. 3, Florida voters will know how many billions of dollars COVID-19 has erased from state revenues. They will know how effective the state’s public health system has been at containing the novel coronavirus. But they won’t know what role Florida’s legislative leaders have played in addressing those issues because Florida’s elected leaders say they have no plans to return to Tallahassee until after the election.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said he will veto millions of dollars in projects from the $93.2 billion state budget in the next five days. The vetoes are needed in anticipation of unprecedented revenue losses, and the governor joked last week that when he’s done the budget would look like “the veto equivalent of the Red Wedding from ‘Game of Thrones.’ ”

But even the dramatic scene from the HBO show, where betrayed characters were killed by their allies, doesn’t completely capture the breadth of his power. DeSantis also plans to use his emergency declaration to steer that money, combined with $4 billion in reserves and $4 billion to $6 billion in federal CARES Act money, into programs that he believes are needed to respond to the unprecedented budget deficit and the state’s response to COVID-19.

Democrats say Florida’s Legislature is ceding its budget and public health oversight authority to the governor. The leaders of Florida’s Republican-controlled state House and Senate disagree.

“You’re essentially disenfranchising a co-equal branch of government, and you are violating constitutional law,’’ said Sen. Gary Farmer, the incoming Senate Democratic leader from Fort Lauderdale. He said that because the Florida Constitution authorizes only the Legislature to allocate state revenues, the governor’s plan is unconstitutional.

Senate President Bill Galvano told the Herald/Times he supports giving the governor that authority, although he told senators in a letter in May that the state needs “federal clarification” for more flexibility for him to be able to shift federal money around.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as ceding it all to the executive branch,’’ Galvano said. “I’ve continued to monitor it on a daily basis from a budget standpoint. We’re watching and working together as these things unfold.”

In March and April, Florida revenues dropped a combined $1.65 billion below expectations and are expected to decline even more when the May numbers are reported Friday. If the state continues to lose $500 million a month, the deficit will climb to at least $4.5 billion by Election Day. The deficit spans the current budget year which closes June 30 and would extend into the new budget year, which begins July 1.

Galvano said he will wait to see what budget analysts say about the state revenue forecast in August to determine whether legislative action is needed. The next general revenue forecast was originally scheduled to take place in June but has been postponed until August.

“Based on the forecasting we have now and the tools that are available, we may come back early next year or late this year,’’ he said. He “doesn’t expect” to come back before the election, he said, but added, “I haven’t foreclosed it.”


House Speaker Jose Oliva of Miami Lakes, however, said he believes lawmakers should come back in special session before the election, but he has not shown any interest in countering his Republican colleagues.

“He thinks we should address any potential shortfall on our watch,’’ said Oliva spokesperson Fred Piccolo. “There isn’t any decision on whether that $6 billion can be spent on anything or on just COVID related.”

DeSantis said last week that a special session to revise the state’s spending plan won’t be needed because he plans to combine his vetoes with Florida’s reserves, and the CARES Act money, to make up any shortfalls in the budget until lawmakers come back for their post-election organizational session. He’s also planning on requiring agencies to withhold spending at the end of each quarter.

But it remains unclear how much authority the governor has to shift the funds. On Thursday, for example, the governor announced $250 million of the CARES Act money would go into affordable housing and mortgage relief, potentially a decision made in anticipation of his veto of the $370 million from the state budget dedicated to affordable housing.

The governor’s budget vetoes could be as high as $1 billion, several legislators told the Herald/Times, noting that would likely mean canceling planned raises for state workers and prison guards, revoking plans to increase spending on education and healthcare and wipe out injecting funding into housing affordability programs and environmental preservation.

The Florida Constitution states that “no money shall be drawn from the treasury except in pursuance of appropriation made by law.” Only the Legislature can pass an appropriations law, but Galvano, a lawyer, said he believes the governor’s emergency declaration allows for an exception.

Senate and House Democrats have petitioned Republican leaders to convene a special session to address the state’s troubled unemployment system, the budget deficit that is expected to be several billion dollars, and policing in Florida in the wake of the George Floyd-related protests.

Democrats say the Republican reluctance has more to do with political priorities than governing.

“Republicans have no intention of bringing us anywhere close to the capital. They are not going to give us a platform to air all their dirty laundry,’’ said Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat.


Sen. Oscar Braynon a Miami Gardens Democrat said that while Republicans control the majority in both the House and Senate and “can control the votes,” they are reluctant to address these issues.

“They don’t want totalk about the failings of its unemployment system and how they are complicit in it,’’ he said. “ Or the police issues they neglected, the economy that’s not sustainable and they’re in charge. The fact that you don’t have a job and they’re in charge. They don’t want to discuss the COVID numbers and how they have handled it

“It is a lot easier to deal with this in the press than on the Senate floor,’’ he said. “A meteor could hit South Florida and they will not bring us back to Tallahassee…They are abdicating their duty.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the criminal justice budget. He said that the kind of fixes required by the massive deficit cannot be addressed by cutbacks alone, but he also doesn’t expect legislative leaders to be willing to return before the election to do it.

“You can slash the prison system, but there are hidden ripple effects,’’ he said. “It’s the overtime created with 200 officers out sick with COVID, and the additional cost of sanitation. It’s the clerk of courts who can’t make payroll because traffic tickets are down 70%. It’s time to reimagine how we fund these institutions. That’s special session work.”

Rep. Travis Cummings, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee and a Republican from Fleming Island, said he doesn’t expect the governor to overstep his constitutional authority.

“It’s not just because it’s a Republican governor and we have a good working relationship,’’ he said. But the governor “is elected by voters and legislators have a responsibility to recognize his executive authority.”

DeSantis last month said he also expects more help from Washington, D.C., on another stimulus package to supply even more money to the state to offset the budget shortfall. Cummings said that if the money doesn’t materialize he agrees with Oliva that if lawmakers need to come back to adjust the budget “we’ll be here to do it.”

In addition to the power over directing all state spending, the Legislature also has the power to question. It can ask the Florida Department of Health to answer questions that have until now been publicly unavailable, such as: What is the contact tracing strategy for people who test positive? What follow up, if any, has been made to people who have traveled from other states and were required to isolate for 14 days? Did the governor know COVID-19 positives were on the rise in counties ordered to reopen in both Phases 1 and 2?

Sen. Wilton Simpson, the incoming Senate president and a Republican from rural Trilby east of Tampa, predicts DeSantis will chop a healthy $700 million but said legislators will have plenty of time to address the deficit and provide oversight for the state’s handling of COVID-19 after the election. The regular session does not begin until March 2.

“We have an oversight role in six months,’’ he said. “This is our constituent service phase and beyond that it’s our job to support getting the state to open in a responsible and safe way.”

He commended the governor for “doing a great job” in the state’s response to the pandemic and said he doesn’t believe there is any role legislators could play by asking more questions of the administration.

“The general public is very, very highly educated on COVID-19 now,’’ he said. “The series of questions we could ask today have been asked and answered already.”


Cummings said the manner in which the DeSantis administration has kept lawmakers informed “is the best I’ve ever seen it.”

“This is new to everyone and to the extent there are lapses it’s not an effort to shut out stakeholders such as the media but sometimes the information is evolving,’’ he said. “I can say I’ve got the confidence in the people, the governor’s office and his team in leading our state through this.”

Galvano said he has had “many conversations” with Director of Emergency Management Jared Moskowitz about COVID-19 testing and distribution of supplies and resources. He said he has been to the Department of Economic Opportunity and has met with Secretary Jon Satter about the unemployment system problems.

He said he expects the Legislature will investigate DEO’s handling of unemployment claims and “review everything at the Department of Health,” but he is retiring because of term limits so that job will be left to his successors.

“What can’t happen is a rush up here for a day or two and think we can get all the answers,’’ he said. “Right now the most important thing is to make sure we are all working with our constituents.”

But Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami said the extent to which the Legislature has worked out the budget plan and with the governor behind closed doors should be a cause for alarm to most Floridians.

“It’s hard for constituents to understand during this unprecedented economic crisis and unprecedented health emergency why is it hunky-dory in Tallahassee and there is nothing for us to do,’’ he said. “What kind of conversations are going on between the governor’s office and the head of the House and Senate? Are they cutting deals without the legislative process moving forward as it constitutionally should be?”

Voters will have the final say about the Legislature’s handling of these unprecedented times when 21 Senate seats and 120 House races are on the November ballot. In Florida this year, the only statewide elections on the ballot are the president and constitutional amendments. There are 11 Democratic incumbents and 1 Republican in the House who were elected without opposition.

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