FERNANDINA BEACH WEATHER

Florida’s $10B in federal pandemic aid eyed for unemployment, roads, flood control

By John Haughey
The Center Square
March 15, 2021

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden last week will deliver more than $17.6 billion in stimulus funds to Florida.

The state will receive $10.2 billion of that $17.6 billion with cities across the state expecting $1.4 billion, counties $4.1 billion and other local governments, such as water districts, set to collect about $1.3 billion.

Among differences In the American Rescue relief plan and last March’s $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act is local governments with populations over 50,000 will be allocated the funds directly rather than the assistance being doled out by the state for all but the largest metropolitan areas.

Also unlike the CARES Act, under the American Rescue plan, local governments can use the non-recurring money to replace tax revenues and other dollars lost over the last year to balance their pandemic-stressed budgets – a provision opposed by Florida’s Congressional Republicans, most prominently by U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.

Last week, Scott sent a letter to governors and mayors across the nation describing any money an agency or government receives not directly spent on COVID-19 related expenses as “excess” that should be returned to the U.S. Treasury.

“I am writing you today with a simple and common-sense request: each state and local government should commit to reject and return any federal funding in excess of your reimbursable COVID-19-related expenses,” Scott wrote. “This commitment will serve the best interests of hard-working American taxpayers and will send a clear message to Washington: politicians in Congress should quit recklessly spending other people’s money.”

Meanwhile, how the state will spend its $10.2 billion will also vary from how the $6 billion in CARES Act money Florida receive was distributed exclusively under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ direction.

The state’s ‘American Rescue’ monies will be allocated by lawmakers before their 2021 legislative session ends in May, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said last week.

“We’re in session,” Sprowls said, “so we’ll be allocating the money during the budget process.”

The big block of federal assistance, which allows states great discretion, has dramatically altered Florida’s budget scenario, flipping a $2.7-billion two-year revenue shortfall into about $7 billion in windfall surplus.

Among ideas kicked around last week is to use about $2 billion to bolster the state’s unemployment trust fund to allow lawmakers to cut businesses’ unemployment tax.

“If we were to take a portion of that money – $1 billion to $2 billion – and put it into the unemployment compensation fund, then you’d be looking at a very large tax cut for businesses that are trying to reopen in this state,” Simpson said last week.

Since the funding is non-recurring, Simpson said lawmakers will ensure allocations don’t require future funding and target “dynamic” projects that boost family-wage employment.

Road construction, water projects and other infrastructure improvements could see increased one-time plugs, he said, noting the state’s road network needs increased investment.

“It’s Florida. There’s 1,000, maybe 2,000 people a day moving here, so we need to get ahead of the curve on our road construction and water projects,” Simpson said.

DeSantis said he will push for money to be dedicated to the state’s flood control infrastructure and newly created sea-rise mitigation plan.

“I feel confident that as is, we’ll be able to put a lot of that money towards our Resilient Florida program,” DeSantis said. “It’s infrastructure we would have needed to have done anyways.”

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