By John Haughey/The Center Square
Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to spend $4.1 billion in federal pandemic assistance to boost state ports, augment “resilience” spending and send every law enforcement officer, paramedic, and firefighter in Florida each a $1,000 “thank you” payment.
DeSantis on Tuesday outlined his priorities for partially allocating the state’s share of the $17 billion-plus Florida governments will receive from the $1.9 trillion ‘American Rescue’ COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden last week.
Nearly $7 billion in ‘American Rescue’ funds will be disbursed to Florida municipalities. Cities statewide are expecting $1.4 billion, counties $4.1 billion, and other local governments, such as water districts, will collect about $1.3 billion.
DeSantis’ $4.1 billion supplemental spending request leaves Republican leaders in the GOP-dominated Legislature with expansive discretion in distributing up to $6 billion in one-time federal funding.
Included in the governor’s request is $72 million for behavioral health services, $73.2 million to update the state’s failed CONNECT unemployment system, $185 million for workforce training, nearly $1 billion to the state Transportation Work Program, $1 billion to the Resilient Florida Grant Program and $1 billion to create an Emergency Management Response Fund.
DeSantis earmarks $208.4 million to give the state’s first responders at least $1,000 each as “a thank you,” he said.
“We know the pandemic put a lot of strain on our first responders – EMTs, sworn law enforcement, firefighters – so we believe we should recognize their sacrifice,” he said.
The governor also wants $260 million allocated to the state’s 15 seaports. Florida’s $117.6 billion maritime industry, the nation’s second-largest, has been roiled by the pandemic, particularly its $8 billion a year cruise-line component.
“That is an amount equal to the losses they’ve accrued during the pandemic through February of 2021,” DeSantis said, noting cruise ships remain under a year-long no-sail-order mandated by the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
“I wanted them to start sailing long ago,” he said. “I think they should be able to sail, and we want to see them sail but nevertheless, that’s taken an enormous amount of toll on our seaports.”
The governor said the state expects to receive initial ‘American Rescue’ funds before the 2021 legislative session adjourns in May but other allocations will follow into summer.
DeSantis theorized there could be a special session before the fiscal year begins July 1 to discuss strategies for investing the non-recurring federal plug.
He has suggested lawmakers, who have seen a two-year $2.7 billion revenue shortfall morph into a budget surplus topping $3 billion, dedicate some of the $5-to-$6 billion at their discretion to state “rainy day” reserves.
DeSantis said he has spoken with House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, Palm Harbor.
“I know they have different ideas,” he said. “But I think … there’ll be a broad agreement between both chambers as well as my office.”
“The Speaker has expressed a strong desire to act on many of the items the governor outlined in the letter sent today, including creating an emergency preparedness fund to ensure Florida is always ready and investments in flooding resilience and our workforce,” Sprowls’ spokeswoman Jenna Sarkissian said.
Simpson wants to use ‘American Rescue’ money to supplement the state’s unemployment trust fund and stimulate the economy with local projects, including road construction, water improvements, and resilience planning – similar in aspiration to what DeSantis seeks but, he cautioned, lawmakers will decide the details.
“Obviously it takes a lot of the pressure off of the entire system of the state of Florida by these dollars coming in because it will stimulate the economy, which will produce additional sales tax,” Simpson said.