Across Tampa Bay and Florida, our families and businesses are still struggling to cope with the financial fallout from the greatest public health crisis in more than a century.
More than 500,000 jobs in Florida still have not come back since the pandemic hit our state with full force. Thousands of families throughout Tampa Bay and the state still fear losing their homes because they cannot afford to pay their rent or mortgages.
Fortunately, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law, which sends billions of dollars to the state so we can help our families and businesses recover. Unfortunately, the state budget being drafted in Tallahassee does not adequately meet those priorities.
The Florida House will soon vote on a $97 billion state budget for 2021-2022 that was drafted by the Republican leadership. It does not even spend more than $3 billion of the roughly $10 billion in federal relief money. It does not take advantage of federal incentives aimed at persuading Florida to finally expand Medicaid, which would provide health coverage for more than 800,000 Floridians. And a related bill would gut affordable housing programs as housing prices are skyrocketing. Instead of raising weekly unemployment benefits that rank among the lowest in the nation, Republican leaders plan to provide more tax breaks for big corporations.
As legislators, we can do so much more to help Floridians at a time when they desperately need it.
First, we should create a Florida Heroes Grant Program to provide one-time $1,000 payments to the heroes who keep the state running -- cooks, agricultural workers, construction workers, bus drivers and other essential workers. I support Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal to provide direct payments to police officers, firefighters and other first responders. But we need to provide more help to more people.
Second, we should create a small business grant program that would provide payments of up to $25,000 to the small businesses that are the backbone of our economy. We could give priority to businesses in low-income, minority communities that have been the hardest hit by the pandemic.
Third, we should fully fund our affordable housing efforts as state law now provides -- instead of permanently reducing this funding by two-thirds. Pinellas County would lose $5 million for affordable housing. We simply cannot afford these cuts when so many families are struggling.
We have yet to persuade our Republican colleagues to support these relief efforts, but we’ll keep trying. The House’s proposed budget would spend $3.5 billion in federal relief money on maintenance for state buildings and school facilities -- and it gives the governor too much discretion to choose those projects when that is the Legislature’s constitutional responsibility. We should not be renovating buildings with money that should be going directly to families scrambling to make ends meet. Another $630 million in federal relief money would go to beach renourishment and other environmental issues. Those are real needs, but they should not be covered by money that should be going to small businesses trying to keep their doors open.
There is another month left in the Legislature’s annual session. That’s plenty of time for us to adjust our priorities and spend the federal relief money for its intended purpose: To help Florida’s families and businesses survive a pandemic that already has cost us so much.
State Rep. Ben Diamond is a Democrat from St. Petersburg.