TALLAHASSEE — The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package before the U.S. Senate would give Florida state and local governments $16 billion in one-time aid, more than enough to wipe out the state’s $2 billion shortfall, but Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday said the funding formula is unfair to Florida because it is tied to unemployment.
“You shouldn’t be penalizing states for doing a good job, which is exactly what this bill does,” DeSantis told reporters Monday, adding his voice to a chorus of GOP officials opposed to President Joe Biden’s first legislative initiative. “Instead of using the share of the population, they are using the number of unemployed in the state, which means states like Florida that have lower unemployment are getting penalized.”
DeSantis joined with 22 governors to sign a letter criticizing the bill just hours after it passed the U.S. House on Saturday. The measure is now awaiting approval in the Senate, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his 50-member Republican caucus are opposing it as too expensive. Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday the Senate will begin considering the bill this week after Biden urged a bill to pass before additional unemployment benefits expire on March 14.
Under the measure, the federal government would direct $350 billion to state and local governments. Of that, $25.5 billion would be divided equally to every state, with each receiving at least $500 million. Another $169 billion would be divided based on the state’s share of unemployed workers nationally, giving Florida a total of about $10.3 billion.
Another part of the package would divide $130 billion among cities and counties based on population, giving Florida cities and counties another $6 billion in direct aid: $288 million for Hillsborough County, $191 million for Pinellas County, $43 million for St. Petersburg and $74 million for Tampa.
As Florida lawmakers meet in regular session Tuesday, they must find a way to close an estimated $2 billion budget deficit. DeSantis said he is confident the state will be able to handle its budget shortfall without the federal money, but, he warned, the formula will give the state $1.2 billion less than if the money were based on its share of the population.
“If they keep this formula, it will probably be even worse for Florida because we firmly expect that our 6.1 percent unemployment rate in December is going to be revised further down. And so that will hurt us in terms of getting relief from this bill,’' DeSantis said.
Although the formula does not recognize mortality rates from COVID-19 deaths, DeSantis said that another unfair feature of the bill is that Florida’s mortality rate is less than others states that have higher unemployment rates and “we’re putting people to work.”
Florida Rep. Joe Geller, an Aventura Democrat, dismissed the concerns over the proposed formula.
“We will certainly be helped more than other states are helped,’' he said. “I don’t think it’s a disadvantage to us if we’re not the highest recipient. The bottom line is, if money comes here that’s a good thing. Period. If it helps to overcome our projected deficit, that’s an even better thing. And just because some other state might get more, it doesn’t make that a disadvantage for us.”
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South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, authored the letter signed by DeSantis and other governors. He noted that “unlike all previous federal funding packages” that distributed aid based on population, the Biden plan “punishes states that took a measured approach to the pandemic and entered the crisis with healthy state budgets and strong economies.’'
The letters, signed by only one Democrat, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, estimates that 33 states will lose money under the proposed formula.
“A state’s ability to keep businesses open and people employed should not be a penalizing factor when distributing funds,’' McMaster said. “If Congress is going to provide aid to states, it should be on an equitable population basis.”
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