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Some DeSantis budget vetoes merit praise | Editorial
Orlando Sentinel - 6/10/2022
Some folks complain we go a little too hard on Gov. Ron DeSantis. But when he gets something right, we should say so. And a few of his budget vetoes were on-point enough to deserve their own mention — particularly notable because with one of the cancellations, DeSantis sharply curbed his own power and with the other, he blocked a legislative move to punish local school districts for defying the governor’s own orders.
We only wish he had said “thanks but no thanks” a little more often.
A $1 billion inflation ‘slush fund’
It’s clear lawmakers created this pot of money with the intent of pleasing the governor, who has asserted an unprecedented level of control over how state money is spent and loves to hammer President Joe Biden as the culprit in current high inflation rates. The House even wanted to give it a cute name — the “Budgeting for Inflation that Drives Elevated Needs Fund” — you can figure out the acronym on that one.
The stated purpose of the fund was to help state agencies cover projects that had budgetary approval but were going to run short due to fast-rising costs. It would have allowed the governor to direct which projects get excess funds, though bump-ups of more than $1 million would have required approval from the Legislative Budget Commission, a joint House-Senate committee that reviews budget changes.
But the LBC has always had the authority to make these adjustments. And, as the governor pointed out, knowing there’s a handy pile of money to deal with rising costs might discourage state agencies from attempts to hold down costs. “Really, you shouldn’t have,” was the right response.
Denied treats for ‘naughty’ school districts
For key lawmakers, this veto must have felt a little like selecting a gift oh-so-carefully, consulting the planned recipient and getting their tentative approval — and then having it returned with a big stomped footprint in the middle. Apparently, DeSantis figured out that it’s not fair to punish Florida schools, and individual students, for decisions made by district-level officials (though the governor still doesn’t seem moved by the fact that those decisions were made with the intention of keeping students and teachers alive).
It was a welcome about-face. As COVID progressed, Florida’s governor grew increasingly irritated at efforts to control COVID, starting with forced shutdowns — which DeSantis believed were bad for the state’s economy — but progressing to rules requiring mask usage or vaccination in most areas, including public schools. When a dozen school districts (including Orange and Broward counties) carried forward with mask mandates anyway, he issued a huffy press release a few weeks before school started in August that spouted scientifically dubious claims about mask usage and authorized the state Board of Education to withhold salaries from Broward and Alachua School Board members. That initiative was quickly slapped down by a federal judge and after some sulking, the governor complied.
But the governor’s friends in the Legislature wanted to revive the notion and after some back-and-forth settled on a plan that would block the erring districts from receiving money under the state’s school recognition program. The penalties were hefty, especially since all the offending counties had since dropped their mask mandates: Schools in Broward County that met the criteria for recognition would have been collectively denied $32.4 million; Orange County schools would have missed out on $14.5 million.
DeSantis seemed to like the plan; he even tweeted his support. He didn’t mention that in his veto message, but he did say — correctly — that it wasn’t fair to punish schools, teachers and students who worked hard during tough times.
Other noteworthy cuts
Those weren’t the only vetoes that merit praise. DeSantis killed $20 million to buy two new planes and hire pilots. In his veto message, DeSantis noted that opening up a state air pool to nearly 100 top executives could create problems, and he’s right — especially with elections coming up. He also shut down a massive new 4,500-bed prison that would have cost $640 million and a $195 million correctional hospital. There’s a legitimate argument that many Florida prisons are outdated and need to be replaced. But this state is long overdue for the kind of sweeping overhaul that has cut prison costs while improving programs for nonviolent offenders and reducing recidivism.
There was one more cut that got a lot of people excited until they realized it wasn’t nearly as good as they’d hoped. When DeSantis axed a plan to spend $50 million on a new district court of appeal building in Lakeland, many were hopeful that he’d abandoned a wholly unnecessary court-expansion plan. Guess the opportunity to appoint seven new judges to powerful and potentially long-lasting positions was too tempting to turn down, even if the gift to DeSantis wastes at least $10 million a year plus the eventual facilities cost — after all, the new court won’t be meeting in the food court of the Lakeland Square Mall.
Florida’s five district courts of appeal — which review cases from trial-level county and circuit courts, along with some appeals of state regulatory decisions — are not overburdened, and not likely to become so. In fact, the appellate courts’ caseload has been steadily dropping in recent years, even as Florida’s population was booming. From 2011 to 2020, the caseload across all five districts dropped by more than 8,000.
Appellate judges figured that one out on their own — when asked if Florida’s districts should be shifted around to create a sixth appellate court, only two (of 64 responses) said it was needed. Looking across all the judges and attorneys that answered the survey, close to 80 percent agreed Florida didn’t need a new court.
The only fiscally conservative move would have been to axe the entire mess.
But it would have taken more restraint than DeSantis has previously shown to turn down all the Legislature’s pointless, pricey presents (which look even more pathetic after the governor gleefully squashed the top budgetary priorities for House and Senate leaders).
At least, however, the governor trimmed away some of the wretched excess.
The Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Opinion Editor Krys Fluker, Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson, Viewpoints Editor Jay Reddick and El Sentinel Editor Jennifer A. Marcial Ocasio. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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