By Issac Morgan/Florida Phoenix

With just a few days left in the 2021 legislative session and COVID-19 still infecting and killing Floridians, the Legislature will not fully utilize federal coronavirus relief funds from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan.

About $3.5 billion will be used to bolster the state’s reserves rather than provide programs and initiatives to help Floridians, according to budget documents.

Democrats in the Legislature, as well as the Democratic Party of Florida, have been pushing to use the federal dollars for everything from Medicaid expansion to relief from evictions to affordable housing.

But overall, the GOP-controlled chambers agreed on only $6.7 billion out of the $10.2 billion available.

The total state budget is $101.5 billion and covers everything from state employee pay, public schools, affordable housing, and reemployment assistance. The 101.5 billion budget also includes $6 billion in reserves, which excludes $3.5 billion from the federal COVID dollars.

At issue is whether the state should sit on billions of dollars or dole out the money to help Floridians and their families.

The final budget was released Tuesday afternoon and members of both the Florida House and Senate have appropriated federal dollars for construction on schools, environmental, and transportation projects.

The budget has a three-day waiting period, known as a “cooling-off period,” before members of the Florida Legislature can vote Friday on it.

For instance, the budget includes $43 million to increase the minimum wage for low-paying state employees to $13 per hour – an initiative by Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson on the opening day of the session.

The $13 an hour “would be more than three years in advance of the timeline outlined in the Constitutional amendment that passed last fall.” Several thousand state workers could benefit from the move, according to a budget press release.

However, the state employee workforce has more than 100,000 employees, and the vast majority already earn more than $13 an hour, according to state salary data.

Meanwhile, President Biden just signed an executive order Tuesday to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $15 an hour.

“I do believe we will continue to see some fluctuation and some uncertainty as our economy recovers,” Simpson said in a written statement. He represents Citrus and Hernando counties and part of Pasco County.

“With this reality in mind, our budget utilizes available federal funding to makes some significant nonrecurring investments in key infrastructure priorities that will create jobs and further bolster Florida’s recovering economy.”

The state will spend $208.4 million on one-time bonus payments of $1,000 for first responders such as firefighters, sworn law enforcement officers, emergency medical technicians, and paramedics. Gov. Ron DeSantis had previously proposed the bonus pay in his state budget.

On the education front, K-12 school teachers and principals will also receive $1,000 bonus payments using federal dollars, spending $215.7 million on the initiative.

But budget negotiations excluded many initiatives pushed by Democrats such as spending money for Medicaid expansion, increasing dollars for housing trust funds to benefit affordable housing programs, and other relief for residents struggling to pay rent.

Democratic lawmakers initially released a spending plan on how to maximize federal dollars that were rejected by GOP leaders. That plan included $520 million to expand Medicaid, $3.3 billion for “Rent Relief and Eviction Protection” and $670 million for affordable housing programs.

“This comprehensive plan ensures that the American Rescue Plan funding that was allocated to the state legislature will actually reach hardworking Floridians and will not just be allocated to tax cuts for corporations and special interest groups,” State Sen. Bobby Powell, a Democrat representing part of Palm Beach County, said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, State Sen. Randolph Bracy, a Democrat representing part of Orange County, celebrated a victory after he’d been able to secure funding for African American history and cultural projects in the state budget.

The African American Cultural and Historic Grant Program will receive $30 million in grants to highlight contributions and the history of African American culture. “African American museums are the wellsprings of knowledge and understanding and are vital to the community,” Bracy said in a written statement last week.

“Securing this funding will continue to keep the African American experience in its rightful place in our great state.”

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