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DeSantis signs record Florida budget, a campaign-ready spending plan boosted by federal dollars

<i>Octavio Jones/Reuters</i><br/>Florida Governor Ron DeSantis
Octavio Jones/Reuters
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

By Steve Contorno, CNN

(CNN) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed his state’s budget, a $117 billion spending plan filled with priorities that have already become fodder for the Republican’s 2024 presidential campaign.

There’s $12 million in there to continue the flights carrying migrants from border states to blue jurisdictions for a second year. Another $25 million was set aside to remake New College, a small liberal arts college on Florida’s west coast, into a new model for a conservative public university. And it factors in tax breaks on babycare products like diapers and a multi-billion dollar expansion of school choice that will allow virtually any Florida K-12 student to attend private schools with taxpayer dollars – both early features of his pitch to Republican families.

Over the past two years, DeSantis has spared little expense while molding Florida to his liking. The budget he signed is the largest in state history, with a price tag 30% above the one his predecessor, then-Gov. Rick Scott, signed during his final year in office. When he was elected in 2018, operating the governor’s office cost taxpayers less than $50 million a year – a figure that has nearly octupled under DeSantis.

“In the state of Florida, we are able to do things that make a difference in people’s lives by not wasting money, but by spending it on things that really have a great impact on the general public,” DeSantis said at Thursday’s budget signing. “We’re good fiscal stewards.”

Record tourism and a growing economy have created a windfall of sales tax revenue for DeSantis and Florida lawmakers to spend as they see fit. So too has a significant injection of cash from Washington, which has sent trillions of dollars to states to help them recover from the coronavirus pandemic and invest in their infrastructure. Governing during flush times has afforded DeSantis the means to fund an aggressively conservative agenda and expand his powers – even as he casts aspersions on Washington for its spending practices.

Last month, as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was attempting to rally support from House Republicans for a deal with President Joe Biden to avoid a calamitous debt default, DeSantis threw cold water on the delicate pact.

Prior to the deal, “our country was careening towards bankruptcy, and after this deal, our country will still be careening towards bankruptcy,” DeSantis told Fox & Friends at the time, a line he has repeated on the campaign trail in recent weeks.

Unsaid in that criticism is how much DeSantis has relied on the federal government to pay for many of his priorities – first from the $2.2 trillion Covid-19 stimulus signed by then-President Donald Trump in 2020 and later from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan championed by Biden.

The Florida Republican has often blamed Biden’s stimulus for causing the country’s prolonged struggles with inflation. Yet, he has liberally spent the billions injected into Florida by the Biden administration. He spent much of last year handing out novelty checks across the state for local projects paid for with the American Rescue Plan. The federal government also picked up the bill for a statewide gas tax holiday DeSantis put in place last October right before his reelection.

“One out of every three dollars Ron DeSantis spends is from the federal government,” state House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat, told CNN. “So he should be praising Joe Biden.”

DeSantis entered politics as a Tea Party-era Republican and a backer of then-US Rep. Paul Ryan’s hawkish federal budget proposals. In his first year in Congress, DeSantis along with the rest of the Freedom Caucus helped orchestrate a government shutdown. When he ran for governor in 2018, he touted his record as a fiscal conservative and vowed to cut waste in Florida’s government.

As governor, DeSantis has made targeted tax cuts and he has filled reserves to protect state coffers in the event Florida’s economic good times come to an end. He has liberally used his line-item veto powers to eliminate the pet projects of Florida lawmakers, including about $510 million in cuts in the budget he signed Thursday.

But he has also spent billions on new initiatives as he has embraced flexing executive power to remake the state into his conservative vision. The budget he signed in 2021 marked the first time the state had surpassed $100 billion in planned spending, and it has continued to go up since then.

With Thursday’s signing, he has more than $100 million to grow the state guard – a World War II-era force that he resurrected last year – into a well-equipped 1,500-person force. There is now $30 million for the University of Florida, the state’s flagship university, to create the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education. There’s millions set aside to pay for anticipated legal costs for defending the governor’s contentious agenda. And there’s now a sales tax break on gas stoves – responding to conservative backlash over concerns about the environmental and health effects of the household appliance.

DeSantis at times has clashed with his Republican predecessor, Scott, who in the US Senate has called for governors to return money from Biden’s rescue package. Scott in 2021 accused states of treating the federal relief package as a “slush fund.” More recently, Scott sent a letter to America’s governors and mayors urging them to give back any unused Covid relief money to help the federal government pay down its $31 trillion debt.

“Every dollar in these packages has been borrowed and will be owed by your constituents,” Scott wrote.

DeSantis in the past has said Scott’s idea “doesn’t make any sense,” arguing the money would be given to other states to spend.

“The state’s going in a great direction,” DeSantis said Thursday. “You’re not going to see us have the type of problems that these other states have with fiscal insolvency, driving people away. Our tax base is expanding, business investments terrific. And of course this budget is in fantastic shape.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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