TALLAHASSEE — The $1,000 pandemic bonuses going out to Florida’s teachers, principals and first responders won’t include a governor’s logo, the state says.
Although the state’s contract with a private vendor says the bonuses must bear an “office of the governor graphic design” approved by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, a spokesperson for the department said the checks will bear the state seal instead.
Whether the checks will bear the signature or name of Gov. Ron DeSantis is unclear, however. When asked, a department spokesperson did not respond.
At DeSantis’ request, the state Legislature this year decided to spend more than $400 million in federal coronavirus relief money awarding $1,000 “bonuses” to hundreds of thousands of teachers, principals, police, firefighters, paramedics and other first responders.
But how the state has decided to distribute the money has led to accusations by some lawmakers and school officials that DeSantis was politicizing the process.
Instead of giving the money directly to state and local governments to send directly to employees’ accounts, the state is paying a private company, Jacksonville-based Fidelity Investment Services, $3.6 million to write the checks and mail them to recipients.
The state has defended its decision, saying the $3.6 million is well below the 10 percent normally used for administrative costs for federal funding.
In a statement, Department of Economic Opportunity spokesperson Emilie Oglesby said the state discussed how to disburse the funds with local governments, and “concerns were raised ... due to the potential for delays in payment processing.”
The Florida Education Association, a union representing teachers and others, has disputed that, saying that school districts would have already sent the money out.
Oglesby said the state is also saving money by no longer calling the checks “bonuses.” It’s now calling them “qualified disaster relief payments,” which the state considers non-taxable income under IRS rules. That saves the state from paying $14.7 million in employment taxes, Oglesby said.
Still, the Florida Department of Education told school district superintendents in a June letter that recipients “should consider consulting with a tax adviser for more information.”
Only a few other states have spent federal relief dollars on bonuses. When Michigan sent $500 bonuses to teachers, it mailed them out but said taxes still needed to be paid. When Georgia issued similar $1,000 “retention bonuses” to teachers and school staff, it sent the money to school districts, which withheld taxes.
Florida decided to go with Fidelity Investment Services to mail out its bonus checks after “no vendors were able to respond and provide the required services within the required timeframe,” a Florida Department of Education spokesperson said.