Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Politics

Gov. Rick Scott orders Florida agencies not to keep federal programs afloat

TALLAHASSEE — Ten days into a partial shutdown of the federal government that has no signs of easing, Florida Gov. Rick Scott's chief of staff ordered that no state funds be used to offset any federal programs that run out of cash as a result of the Washington gridlock.

In a draft letter directed to the governor's agencies, Adam Hollingsworth, Scott's chief of staff, said that absent a federal resolution, "it is important that we ensure that state funds are not committed as a temporary backfill to federal programs as a matter of course."

A day after more than 100 fishing guides, kayakers and paddle board operators held a rally to protest the closure of Everglades National Park, the governor also rejected calls to use state funds to open closed federal parks.

The federal government said Thursday it will allow states to use their own money to reopen some national parks. Governors in Utah, South Dakota, Arizona and Colorado have suggested they will do that, even though it is uncertain whether they will get reimbursed.

"It's the federal government's obligation to reopen and cancel restrictions on Florida's natural treasures, and Florida taxpayers will not foot the bill to cover Washington's failure to negotiate and compromise,'' said Frank Collins, Scott's deputy communications director. He said federal agencies are attempting to "make the government shutdown more painful" by targeting Florida families "with added restrictions and closures of federal parks."

Hollingsworth did not address what might happen to a handful of federal programs administered by the state that are expected to run out of money in the next four to seven days. Federal assistance programs that serve foster children, veterans programs and small to medium-sized school districts are all expected to be short of cash beginning Oct. 14, state documents show.

In addition, two state agencies that manage federal programs are in jeopardy of losing funding. Records show that 274 employees at the Department of Military Affairs are being furloughed and that the Florida Department of State next week will run out of money to pay the rent on some of its buildings.

The Department of Juvenile Justice had planned to use cash in its trust funds to make payments for its adoption and foster care programs, but Hollingsworth's directive appears to prevent it.

For his part, Scott, a Republican who is seeking re-election, would not answer reporters' questions about what impact the shutdown is having on the state. Instead, he repeatedly blamed President Barack Obama, a Democrat, for the gridlock in Washington.

"The buck always stops with the president,'' Scott said in an interview with the Times/Herald. "We need more leadership and we need more negotiation in Washington, D.C. I expect our leaders to resolve their differences. They need to get this fixed."

Governors in other states have decided to use their state funds to provide temporary assistance to poor women and children who benefit from federal assistance programs such as TANF and SNAP.

Hollingsworth's two-page memo said "no accounting measures" or budget actions could be taken "to temporarily support unavailable federal funds through the use of state funds."

He said that more than 35 percent of Florida's $74 billion state budget comes from federal funds and that the decision not to shift state funds into federal programs was intended to preserve "legislative intent."

Senate President Don Gaetz supports the governor's decision to take a hard line against offsetting the impact of the shutdown, said spokeswoman Katie Betta.

Said House Speaker Will Weatherford: "I agree with Gov. Scott. Florida shouldn't be penalized for Washington's inability to perform its basic duty of passing an annual budget. I hope both sides can come to an agreement soon."

Meanwhile, an analysis of the impact of an unresolved government shutdown on state programs, prepared by the Legislature's budget staff, concluded:

• Small to medium-sized school districts using bi-weekly pay periods may start to have problems meeting payroll.

• Vocational Rehabilitation and Blind Services programs will not meet payroll.

• Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the supplemental food program for Women Infants and Children (WIC) will run out of funds by the end of the month.

• School lunch, school breakfast and child and adult care food programs could also run out of money in the next week.

While many in state government believe the state can withstand the impact of the federal government shutdown, the biggest hit could come if Congress refuses to extend the debt ceiling and can't pay its debts.

Florida benefits the most from federal grant and entitlement programs, according to an analysis by the Pew Center for the States, with residents depending heavily on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and unemployment checks.

If Congress and Obama cannot reach a resolution on extending the debt ceiling, "a return to a recession would be a real possibility," wrote Rick Harper, a senior policy adviser on economic affairs for Gaetz in the analysis for the Senate.

Times/Herald staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.

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