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Florida stimulus 'czar' defends pace of spending

“Stimulus czar” Don Winstead oversees spending $15.4 billion in Florida over two years. “We’re on a good pace,” he says.

Associated Press

“Stimulus czar” Don Winstead oversees spending $15.4 billion in Florida over two years. “We’re on a good pace,” he says.

Don Winstead wields the wonkish title of Special Advisor to the Governor for the Implementation of the Federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

It's easier to think of him as Florida's stimulus czar.

He's the point person tracking how Florida spends its $15.4 billion share of the $787 billion economic stimulus package, the one responsible for compiling reports to the feds that justify expenditures. The first detailed look at where Florida stands on creating jobs so far was due Saturday. Some details are expected to be publicly released in the next few days.

Winstead, 61, who has spent much of his career in government posts, still serves as Deputy Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Gauging the impact of the federal program so far has been a fuzzy process. Florida has been criticized as slow to tap into stimulus dollars, but Winstead defends the measured pace. For instance, he said, it's far preferable to gradually use funds earmarked for education over the next couple of years to balance school budgets rather than use up almost all the money in one shot, as states such as California and Illinois have done.

"The important thing to remember is that this was planned over a couple-year period of time, so we're running a marathon," he said. "We've just passed the two-mile mark, and we're on a good pace."

The Times caught up with Winstead last week to discuss where the money is flowing and when.

Out of the $15.4 billion coming our way, how much have we spent so far? And where do we rank among states in spending?

We're still gathering information to incorporate where we stand as of Sept. 30.

The initial estimate by the Congressional Budget Office was that for the first year only about 20 percent of the money would be spent … and that's probably a good estimate. We're probably a little bit ahead of that.

Who's gotten money so far?

The first money that got out the quickest was designed to alleviate the impact of the recession on individuals. So (stimulus money) for unemployment compensation, Medicaid funding, the additional food stamps benefits. All of that was the early money out.

Then we've had expenditures ramping up in other areas (like) the summer youth employment program. … We're seeing increases on almost a daily basis in terms of transportation.

And you're happy with the state's progress?

Yes, I am. … I feel very good about the progress that we're making and all the things we're seeing. Things are flowing as they should.

There are some particular federal awards we would have liked to have gotten back. … We're a little bit slow on some of the energy money, the weatherization money. We had to (submit) plans, and they had to evaluate it and release the money. We've met every deadline. … Having worked for the federal government for 31/2 years, I understand how it works.

What's the single biggest chunk coming to Florida?

The single biggest pot of money is this Medicaid money, and that was created by a change in the percentage of federal reimbursement to the Medicaid program. Typically, we get about 55 percent federal funding and the state has to put in 45 percent. Under the Recovery Act … we qualified for an increase from 55.4 percent to 67.64 percent, and that was also retroactive to Oct. 1, 2008. So we were able to go back and claim almost $800 million in federal funding, and that will continue for a 27-month period until Dec. 31, 2010. … The difference in the amount of federal funding increase will be about $4.4 billion.

The second biggest is in education. We'll have about $2.2 billion more over the course of the Recovery Act. What the Florida Legislature did — and I think very wisely — was to say this money is supposed to help stabilize the education budget, so what we'll do is spread it over the next two school years.

Some states were in such dire circumstances that they used the (stabilization money) to plug existing holes in their budgets. A couple of states like California and Illinois have already drawn down 92 percent of their fiscal stabilization money made available to them. Michigan and Massachusetts have drawn down a majority of the money. Florida took a different approach.

You've been on the road throughout the state recently, explaining to small businesses how to access stimulus grants and programs. What's been the reception?

When I get a chance to meet with businesspeople and others around the state, it's a tonic. It's just great. You're reminded what extraordinary energy and enthusiasm there is.

Certainly, there are a lot of people struggling right now. I hear a lot of people looking for ways to help their businesses, to help their families. But the discussions are very positive.

Many small businesses are complaining that banks still aren't lending despite new loan programs available through the Small Business Administration. Are you hearing the same frustration?

What I hear from folks with the Small Business Administration … is check back, often because they're constantly trying to do things to improve access to capital through banks. They're telling me that a lot of banks are most anxious to do business with folks they have a relationship with and are less likely to enter into a new relationship.

But it's a constantly changing scenario. Hopefully, over time it's getting better, but you do hear that frustration.

What's the best way for businesses to get on your radar screen?

First of all, if business people are interested in doing business with a state agency or federal agency, don't think the federal agencies are only in Washington, D.C. There are links from our site (www.flarecovery.com), and the federal site (www.fbo.gov) has information about federal business opportunities.

It's very important that businesses register with the federal and state sites to get on the list to get information. I've met a number of small-business people who've registered with those sites and got one job that led to another job and led to the expansion of their companies.

We have roughly 1 million unemployed Floridians, a number that doesn't include part-timers seeking full-time work and the discouraged who've stopped looking. What dent can the stimulus dollars make in improving our unemployment rate?

We're working on some of those estimates now. It's difficult to say with any precision, because you have the accounting of the direct effect of stimulus spending and the indirect effect and the rollover effect. Part of what we're inputting is job retention as well as creation estimates.

Clearly, if it were not for these monies, the unemployment rate would be higher than it is. It's of great concern to everybody that the unemployment rate is 10.7 percent in Florida. Everybody understands that unemployment tends to be a lagging indicator, but when you understand what that represents in the lives of people, it's something that's a constant concern.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8242.


This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The Times spoke with Don Winstead, who oversees spending of federal stimulus funds in Florida, on Oct. 7. A story Sunday gave the wrong day.

More information

For access to business contracts and job opportunities connected with the federal stimulus program:

• Get links and information through the Florida Office of Economic Recovery at www.flarecovery.com.

• Register at MyFlorida
Marketplace.com, an online exchange for buyers and vendors statewide.

• Search for federal grants and programs at www.
fbo.gov, also known as
FedBizOpps.gov.

• Check out the state's
job marketplace: www.employflorida.com.

Florida stimulus 'czar' defends pace of spending 10/10/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 12, 2009 10:44am]
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