TALLAHASSEE — A mammoth $4 billion in federal stimulus money is about to be pumped into Florida to build more roads, serve more senior meals, aid disadvantaged kids and even help fight forest fires.
Without the infusion of federal cash, the state Legislature would have had to make some politically unpopular cuts to programs from the current budget, which is about $700 million in the hole and ends June 30.
But with the extra money in hand, a special panel called the Legislative Budget Commission will likely approve all the new spending in a few hours Wednesday. Not only will the money spare legislators from the hassle of agonizing over budget cuts, it also will expand programs to help unemployed people seeking new jobs and will help cover the cost of job training and food stamps.
"Many of these programs aren't just important. They're vital," said Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who sits on the budget committee.
Fasano said the stimulus package — worth about $13.4 billion over three budget years — has two aspects: expanding the safety net to help people in need and spurring construction projects that put more people to work.
Twenty-one programs are set to receive federal money in the current budget year, and nearly $1.4 billion is targeted for "shovel-ready'' projects that can be built as soon as possible.
The state estimates that at least 55,000 jobs will be created or saved by the road construction projects, such as the construction of an interchange on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway in Hillsborough County.
"We're fulfilling the intent of the stimulus package. We're spending the money and getting it out on the street to help create jobs," said Stephanie Kopelousos, secretary of Florida's Department of Transportation.
Not all the cash flows into the state's budget. At least $572 million will be sent directly to local schools to help disadvantaged students.
The biggest chunk of cash for the state budget is $1.8 billion in Medicaid money. The rolls of Medicaid grew 9 percent in the past year, punching a $300 million deficit into the state-federal health insurance program. Now, about 14 percent of the state's population is on Medicaid.
But not all of the money will remain in the program. About $900 million in Medicaid money is being transferred out to help balance the rest of the budget that's in deficit.
Still, if the economy continues to crash, it might not be enough. Even with all the federal stimulus money, lawmakers expect to finish the budget year with just $200 million in savings. So all current budget "holdbacks'' on state spending — requests to agencies and local governments to not spend budgeted money — will remain in effect for now.
Next budget year, which begins July 1, legislators plan to shift more Medicaid money to make up for an even bigger budget deficit: $3 billion. And that's after legislators plow an additional $5 billion in federal stimulus money into the 2009-10 budget deficit.
Advocates for the poor and elderly, such as Democratic Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, have bashed the transfer of Medicaid money as a "shell game." But Republicans who control the Legislature say they have to shift the Medicaid money to stave off other budget cuts and to hold the line on big tax increases.
George Sheldon, the head of the state's Department of Children and Families, said his agency needs the extra money to hire more staffers to answer telephones and process food-stamp requests. Nearly one in 10 Floridians needs subsidized meals. And about 850,000 are unemployed.
The chairman of the Legislative Budget Commission, Republican Rep. David Rivera of Miami, said the state will spend the money because it belongs to Florida taxpayers.
Rivera said everything from senior meals to insulating the homes of low-income Floridians to building roads "can have a positive impact on reigniting our economy and creating jobs, which is precisely the mandate that has been established by Gov. Crist and the Legislature."
At first, when the stimulus package proposed by the Obama administration was being debated, congressional Republicans bashed the plan as wasteful spending. Only three Republicans, all in the Senate, voted for it.
While Republican Gov. Charlie Crist embraced the Democratic spending plan, some Republican state House members suggested they might refuse some of the money. In the end, the Legislature will likely reject about $440 million in additional workers' compensation benefits that could trigger a higher tax on businesses.
Lawmakers will take the remaining $13 billion.
"We have to spend what we have," said Rep. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican. "Most of us are beyond the philosophical questions at this point."
Marc Caputo can be reached at email@example.com.