Gov. Ron DeSantis offers blueprint for federal COVID-19 stimulus funding

The governor’s proposal for $4.1 billion in spending includes one-time $1,000 bonuses for first responders.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the press after giving his State of the State speech on the first day of the 2021 Legislative Session in Tallahassee, Fla. Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat via AP)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the press after giving his State of the State speech on the first day of the 2021 Legislative Session in Tallahassee, Fla. Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat via AP) [ TORI LYNN SCHNEIDER/TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT | AP ]
Published Mar. 16, 2021|Updated Mar. 16, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis pitched plans Tuesday to use nearly half of the money coming to Florida from a federal stimulus package to bulk up infrastructure, bolster efforts to fight rising sea levels, fix the troubled unemployment system and provide first responders with $1,000 bonuses for their work during the past year.

DeSantis on Tuesday outlined $4.1 billion in spending he’s proposed to House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson for the current and next fiscal years. Money also would go toward issues such as boosting state tourism marketing efforts and bringing in new recruits to the Florida National Guard.

“We are certain that appropriations are eligible to be made to deliver meaningful relief to Floridians and businesses and to protect the state’s fiscal health,” DeSantis wrote to the legislative leaders. “Florida’s fiscal outlook has improved from the worst-case projections during the pandemic.”

Simpson spokeswoman Katie Betta said the Senate president was “very pleased” with the items prioritized by DeSantis.

“The governor mentioned many of the same non-recurring investments the president has expressed support for over the last couple of weeks, namely — reserves (the governor mentioned doubling the BSF), transportation, resiliency and the emergency management response fund,” Betta said in an email, using an acronym for a reserve known as the Budget Stabilization Fund. “He and (Appropriations Chairwoman) Sen. (Kelli) Stargel will start digging into the details, but based on his initial read, the president is very pleased and supportive of the governor’s approach.”

The Legislature, which at one time was looking at a massive budget shortfall because of economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, is in the third week of the 60-day legislative session. The House and Senate will need to reach agreement on a budget for the fiscal year that will start July 1.

The governor’s proposal Tuesday is intended to address a portion of the $9 billion to $10 billion that the state expects to receive from the $1.9 trillion relief package that President Joe Biden signed last week.

DeSantis contends the state is getting about $2 billion less than it would be if the federal government used past stimulus funding formulas. The formula in the new package uses unemployment numbers.

“We’re getting the short end of the stick, make no mistake about it, but we’ll make the best of what we have,” DeSantis told reporters.

A main feature of DeSantis’s proposal would be to use $208 million to cover one-time payments of $1,000 to emergency first responders across the state.

“We know that the pandemic put an awful lot of strain on our first responders, EMTs, sworn law enforcement, firefighters, so we believe that we should recognize their sacrifice over the last year,” DeSantis said.

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To speed the revamping of the state’s CONNECT online unemployment system, DeSantis would use stimulus money to cover the $73 million that Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Dane Eagle has requested for the work. DeSantis also is proposing $56.6 million to cover the costs of the current system, which had to be expanded as unemployment applications overwhelmed CONNECT last year.

Related: 5 ways lawmakers can fix Florida's unemployment system — besides Connect

The governor’s office also is reviewing if the stimulus could be used to replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund, offsetting potential tax increases on businesses.

Another $72 million would go to behavioral health services championed by First Lady Casey DeSantis, and $41.7 million would help the Florida National Guard recruit up to 450 additional service members.

In terms of infrastructure, DeSantis wants to spend $1 billion on top of money he proposed earlier to address sea-level rise over a four-year period. When he released his proposed budget in January, DeSantis called for using $25 million next year as debt service to issue bonds for the “resiliency” projects, with the amount of money earmarked for debt service increasing by $25 million a year.

“It’s going to be $2 billion over that four-year period,” DeSantis said Tuesday, as he announced the additional money. “That’s a pretty significant amount of money to be able to address a lot of infrastructure needs as it relates to things like flooding and sea level rise. So, we think it’s a good opportunity to be able to make even more headway and we’re taking advantage of that.”

Related: Florida has thousands more properties with high flood risk than FEMA says, according to new study

Lawmakers have started moving forward with bills (Senate Bill 1954 and House Bill 7019) based on a proposal by Sprowls that in two years would lead to resiliency efforts funded at $100 million a year without issuing bonds.

Among other infrastructure spending, DeSantis wants to use the federal stimulus to provide $260 million to cover losses incurred at ports over the past year, in part because of a “no sail order” for passenger cruise operations. DeSantis also wants to add $938.4 million to the Florida Department of Transportation’s work program.

In recent months, state transportation officials cut or delayed 77 road projects from a five-year plan to make up $763 million from lost gas taxes, rental car fees, toll collections and other state and federal sources during the pandemic.

DeSantis, who had already requested that Visit Florida receive $50 million for marketing next fiscal year, proposed another $50 million for the agency Tuesday.

“I think that with the advent of these (COVID-19) vaccines, you’re already seeing people feel really good about traveling,” DeSantis said. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand, we believe. We know there’s a lot of money on the sidelines for people who haven’t been doing some of the things they would normally be doing. And then, we obviously want Florida to be the beneficiary of that when people start getting back into the mix on enjoying themselves in traveling, visiting places.”

Another $10 million would go into Alzheimer’s research and $150 million would be injected into the Job Growth Grant Fund. The fund, which was created for job training and public infrastructure projects, was vetoed last year as DeSantis cut $1 billion from the budget.

By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida

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