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Pandemic could nix hard-fought gains in Florida affordable housing, environmental funding

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By John Haughey | The Center Square

    Even before the Florida Legislature adjourned on March 19 after adopting a $93.2 billion fiscal 2021 budget, there was ambient recognition the COVID-19 pandemic would require revisions in a spending plan built on revenues that will fall short of projections.

The expectation was – and still is – lawmakers will return to Tallahassee for a special session to assess the damage to the budget before it goes into effect July 1.

But Gov. Ron DeSantis now says his veto pen may preempt the need for a special session.

The pandemic “may require me to exercise a lot of vetoes, and there may be vetoes on things I personally support,” he said Thursday. “I’m going to have to look hard at what is absolutely necessary and what things we can punt until next time.”

What won’t be vetoed is $543 million in corporate tax refunds, to be dispersed by May 1, and the $50 million appropriation for Visit Florida, the state’s tourist marketing agency that was on its death bed in January but now is regarded a vital tool in reviving the state’s number one industry, tourism, when life returns to whatever “normal” will be.

Affordable housing and environmental advocates, after celebrating a budget that fully funded the trust funds after routinely being “swept” into the general fund for years, are bracing to see hard-fought gains erased by the pandemic financial crisis.

“Full appropriation of the Sadowski state and local housing trust funds is going to help Florida’s economy at a time when it is critically needed,” Florida Housing Coalition President/CEO Jaimie Ross wrote in an op-ed, noting the $387 million allocation “will bring over $4.4 billion in positive economic benefit to Florida.”

The 2020 legislative session marked the first time in 13 years lawmakers fully funded the Sadowski Fund, created in 1992 to leverage private and federal funding for affordable and workforce housing.

Money for the fund comes from a 20-cent surcharge for every $100 paid on real estate transactions. It is projected to generate $400 million in 2020 although, like all other fiscal forecasts, that estimate may no longer be viable.

“The SHIP funds will help Floridians who have lost employment due to COVID-19 to stay in their rental housing and in their homes,” Ross wrote. “The halting of evictions and foreclosures [by DeSantis’ executive order] is great public policy, but rent and mortgage payments will come due soon, and SHIP will be a critical resource for Floridians hardest hit economically by the pandemic.”

1,000 Friends of Florida President Paul Owens warned Wednesday the “triumph in grassroots lobbying” that secured full Florida Forever funding is unlikely to survive.

Florida Forever is funded by a 70-cents-per-$100 documentary stamp excise tax levied on property deeds and a 35-cents-per-$100 excise tax on promissory notes.

In January, state economists projected it would collect $2.87 billion this year. One third – $945.12 million – must be deposited to Florida Forever where $157.69 million is committed to debt service, leaving $787.43 million, of which $690 million was dedicated to DeSantis’ proposed four-year, $2.5 billion Everglades restoration initiative.

DeSantis said if he must veto funding for some programs, there’s always next year.

“Come back next year and we’ll do it,” he said.

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