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Columbia County Observer

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Florida Legislature Budget Balancing: In Trusts Do They Trust

From trusts to the general fund - Florida Legislators balance the budget: image of money floating down

TALLAHASSEE –  When it comes to finding a reliable funding source for 11th-hour budget-balancing maneuvers, in trusts do Florida lawmakers trust.

Among agreements between House and Senate budget negotiators is a mixed bag in how much money collected by land acquisition and affordable housing trust funds will actually go to land acquisition and affordable housing.

The general consensus: more than year’s past, but not what critics want nor what Gov. Ron DeSantis called for in his budget request.

Florida Forever

According to the proposed $91.1 billion fiscal year 2020 state budget lawmakers are expected to adopt Saturday afternoon, only $33 million from a potential $300 million in the Florida Forever land acquisition trust fund will be spent to purchase sensitive habitats and water resources.

The remainder will be funneled into the general fund – again.

Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund 

Meanwhile, the Legislature will appropriate $200 from the William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund – dedicating $115 million for Michael-ravaged Panhandle projects – to fully fund its affordable housing program for the first time ever.

The Senate proposed providing $45 million for Florida Forever in its proposed $90.3 billion budget. The House proposed $20 million for the program in its $89.9 billion plan.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, meanwhile, called for a “sweep check” in his proposed $91.3 billion budget request, allocating $100 million for the Florida Forever conservation land acquisition program, which would have been the highest dedicated annual allocation in the four years the fund has been accruing revenues.

In the end, said state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who as Senate Appropriations Committee Chair led the senior chamber in budget talks with the House, “We met in the middle, basically.”

Lawmakers justified sweeping Florida Forever of nearly $70 million to other FY20 allocations because more than $100 million in unspent dedications will remain available next fiscal year.

Florida Forever
A Constitutional Amendment Approved by the People

Voters approved Florida Forever as Constitutional Amendment 1 in 2014. The measure requires the state to set aside one-third of revenue from a state tax on documentary stamps annually for 20 years to acquire conservation lands. The fund accrues up to $300 million a year.

Using a provision in the state’s General Appropriations Act that authorizes lawmakers to transfer “unappropriated cash balances from specified trust funds” to the general fund and budget stabilization funds, Florida legislators have only used $88 million of the $740 million that has accumulated in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund since 2014 for land acquisition.

Last year, after lawmakers swept $140 million from the fund for other purposes, Leon County Judge Charles Dodson ordered the Legislature to spend the money as intended. Much of that money remains unallocated.

Efforts to check Florida Forever trust fund sweeps again failed this year, including Senate Bill 944, filed by Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, which would have required legislators to appropriate at least $100 million every year to Florida Forever. The bill stalled after passing one committee hearing.

In fully funding its affordable housing program for the coming fiscal year, lawmakers are using the damage inflicted in October by Hurricane Michael to swing the emphasis away from rising rents and home prices in urban areas to rebuilding shredded rural housing stock.

The proposed spending plan calls for $115 million to assist with housing needs in the region devastated by Hurricane Michael with $77 million available for affordable housing programs statewide. Another $8 million is earmarked for a Jacksonville housing development.

$185 Swept from the Housing Trust:  $2.2 billion in all
Another Voter Approved Constitutional Amendment

In 2018, lawmakers swept $185 million from the Sadowski Housing Fund and left $109 million for the state's affordable housing programs.

Approved by voters in a 1992 Constitutional amendment ballot measure, Sadowski is funded by a 20-cent surcharge for every $100 paid on real estate transactions. According to a December Revenue Estimating Conference forecast, the surcharge generated $352 million in 2018.

During the early 2000s housing boom, trust fund revenues grew. In 2001, legislators began diverting millions from the fund for other purposes.

A 2018 Senate Community Affairs Committee analysis determined that since 2001, more than $2.2 billion in Sadowski money has been funneled into the general fund, enough to subsidize nearly 177,000 new homes, according to the Florida Housing Corp., the nonprofit that administers the fund.

This piece appeared in the Watchdog.org and was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

Layout and graphic added by the Observer; original image w/o copy: MaxPixel.net

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