WASHINGTON — Florida is set to receive $554.8 million to help schools retain or hire back teachers, as well as $784 million in extra Medicaid funding under a sweeping aid package for states approved Tuesday by the U.S. House.
President Barack Obama promptly signed it into law, boasting the measure would save hundreds of thousands of jobs nationwide. The Senate had already approved the $26 billion bill.
Republicans depicted it as another "stimulus" or "bailout" before casting what was largely a party-line vote against it. They accused Democrats of trying to curry favor before the midterm elections and questioned job creation claims.
The package provides $10 billion to school districts to rehire laid-off teachers or prevent layoffs and is paid for mainly by closing a tax loophole for multinational corporations and by reducing food stamp benefits for the poor.
The other $16 billion goes for six more months of increased Medicaid payments to states, which will allow Florida to free up money for other priorities.
"We can't stand by and do nothing while pink slips are given to the men and women who educate our children or keep our communities safe," Obama said.
But it remains unknown exactly how much new money will flow into local school districts that have been struggling to produce balanced budgets for 2010-11.
School leaders in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties were still seeking direction Tuesday about what the touted cash infusion may mean. "Until we get the guidelines, we just can't speculate on how it will affect our district," Pinellas spokeswoman Andrea Zahn said.
The U.S. Education Department estimates that of the 160,000 teachers who could be affected nationally, 9,200 are from Florida. State education officials couldn't confirm the federal estimate.
Tampa Bay area school districts have managed to avoid layoffs for the coming school year, but news of the federal funding still generated an optimistic buzz among worried teachers.
"I am hoping this may help plug the holes and put us in a better stead for next year," said Lynne Webb, president of the Pasco County school employees union. "Any more money that is going to come into our district is not going to be a bad thing at this point."
Florida school officials credited an earlier, $789 billion federal stimulus bill with creating or saving 28,000 education jobs, including 2,800 in the Tampa Bay area.
School district officials around Florida have talked repeatedly about the "funding cliff" that is coming in 2011-12, when that first round of federal aid money runs out. They have warned that the loss of money, combined with a continued weak state economy, could lead to even more severe budget cuts, including layoffs.
County finance officials were warned last week by the Florida Department of Education that if the bill passed, they should not expect the money for the current budget.
Tuesday's vote comes before the midterm elections and could be a boost to Democrats, partly explaining Republican objections.
Republicans scattered around the country and world for the August break were summoned back to Washington for the one-day session as Democrats stressed the need to act before children return to classrooms.
"The American people don't want more Washington 'stimulus' spending — especially in the form of a payoff to union bosses and liberal special interests," House Republican leader John Boehner said.
In addition to the education funds, Florida will get $784 million in increased Medicaid payments. The state Legislature anticipated receiving those funds when it assembled its budget this spring and envisions spending some of it, including about $40 million for Everglades restoration.
Jill Chamberlin, spokeswoman for Florida House Speaker Larry Cretul, said legislative staff were trying to determine late Tuesday how the money could be used, and with what strings attached.
Gov. Charlie Crist, who championed the federal stimulus as a Republican and is now running for U.S. Senate as an independent, welcomed the money.
"We need all the help we can get, especially in this economy," he said. "It's all about jobs, jobs, jobs. Whatever assistance we can get to bring some of those Florida dollars back to Florida we deserve to get."
Florida's delegation in Washington voted along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. Several lawmakers missed the vote, including Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, who is recovering from back surgery, and Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, who was participating in a televised debate in his U.S. Senate primary.
"It's just throwing good money after bad," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.
Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, said he had "some heartburn" voting for the measure because it was partly paid for by future cuts in food stamp funding. But he liked that Broward County schools will be able to call back hundreds of teachers who had been laid off.
Once the law takes effect, states will have 30 days to apply for funding. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will then have 45 days to distribute the awards. If a governor does not submit an application, Duncan may still set criteria by which states may receive a portion.
States then must allocate the money to districts based on their regular funding formula, or on their Title I federal funds shares.
The money must go toward employment — not toward debt, general administrative expenses, reserve accounts or other things not related to hiring.
States are also barred from using the federal money as a means to remove other cash already allocated to the education budget. The state's share of funding must remain stable from 2009.
Such a requirement nearly derailed Florida's chances to get its share of the first round of stabilization money. Crist had to ask for a waiver from Duncan, which he received, in order to qualify.
Information from the Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.