WASHINGTON — Florida stands to gain a whopping $4.3 billion to help people who have lost their jobs keep their health insurance and to provide health care for the poor under the economic stimulus plan expected to pass Congress this week. The state is also in line for millions of dollars for highway projects and school systems.
Although details remained sketchy Thursday about how much of the $789 billion actually will reach Florida and how it will be spent, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and Democratic members of Congress said they expect the bill to help fill the state's budget deficit, jump-start stalled road construction projects, including work on the I-4 connector, pay for new water projects and pump millions of dollars into Florida's medical schools for biomedical research.
"We're not still sure exactly what the final number is going to be for Florida," Crist told African-American lawmakers who met with him at the Governor's Mansion. "But it looks like every hour we get closer to a final resolution, and I think that gets to a very good place."
Crist predicted Florida's share of the stimulus would be almost enough to cover next year's projected budget deficit, unofficially between $5 billion and $6 billion.
"It's very, very encouraging," Crist said. "I shudder to think what it would be like if this wasn't moving forward."
Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, the only member of the Tampa Bay area congressional delegation expected to vote for the bill when it reaches the House floor today, said the plan "provides the paddle, the electronic shock to the system, and then tells the patient that we have a plan for recovering for the long term."
"If it doesn't produce results, then we'll be held accountable," added Castor, the area's only Democratic member of Congress. "But I think folks need to know that we're up here fighting for them and this plan is good for business and people in the Tampa Bay area."
Some $4.3-billion will go directly to funding Medicaid, the insurance program for the poor, and to helping people who have been laid off pay for health insurance offered through their former employers.
The House is expected to pass the bill today, with Senate passage likely today or Saturday. But as Thursday drew to a close, Democratic leaders still could provide little more than broad outlines of how the money will be spent, aggravating congressional watchdogs and Republicans who complained of being left out of the process.
Not a single Republican in the House backed the measure when it first came to the floor two weeks ago, and only three Republican senators supported it. Republicans generally complain that the bill is too costly and includes too few tax cuts, and they contend that an emergency stimulus bill is no place to provide funding for schools and many other projects.
"It's basically like throwing close to $1 trillion against the wall and hoping something will stick," said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor. "We should be working in a bipartisan fashion. Experts should be called in to testify, economists and the like."
With a few exceptions apparently for pet projects for senior lawmakers, the bill does not identify specific projects for funding.
Instead, states and localities will get the money by applying for grants or through existing formulas that provide funding for schools, Medicaid and the like. For road projects, Florida Department of Transportation officials will coordinate requests with local governments.
Don Skelton, DOT secretary for District 7, which includes Tampa Bay, said first on his list is construction of the Interstate 4 connector, which will funnel truck traffic from the Port of Tampa directly to the interstate highways. Next is completing work to convert the central portion of U.S. 19 in Pinellas County to a controlled-access highway, followed by rebuilding I-275 between Westshore Boulevard and downtown Tampa.
Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached at [email protected] or (202) 463-0577.