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Biden advisor touts economic data, immigration reform in South Florida - but consumers still worry

People work at a construction site, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, in Miami.
Lynne Sladky
People work at a construction site, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, in Miami.

With the 2024 presidential election less than a year away, the White House is promoting President Biden president’s record all over the country, including Florida, with top officials touting what they boast are Biden’s accomplishments.

In an interview with WLRN, one of Biden’s senior advisors, former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, talked about jobs and the economy in Florida, immigration reform and the billions of dollars of infrastructure projects made available statewide — and took some shots at former President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis, both Republicans running for president.

READ MORE: How South Florida is a study in economic contrasts for the Biden administration

Trump is far ahead of DeSantis and other challengers for the GOP nomination. National polls show Trump in a tight race with Biden.

The Biden administration knows it has to counter any Republican rhetoric about a sour economy and a dim outlook

Perez is a veteran Democratic campaigner and former Democratic National Committee chairman. He's the latest administration official to be made available to speak with WLRN about the economy.

He told WLRN that Florida’s unemployment rate was almost 6% when Biden took office in 2021 and is now less than 3%.

“The biggest issue I hear from employers in South Florida is ‘I need more workers,’” said Perez. “That's a good challenge to have.”

Recent data show there were 1.8 job openings in Florida for every person looking for work. That was higher than the national figure but down when there were almost two and a half jobs for everyone looking for work at the beginning of this year.

Yet Floridians view the high cost of housing, the economy and jobs as the most important problems facing the state, according to a University of North Florida released last month.

Perez, when asked about South Florida’s highest in the nation inflation rate, pivoted to talk about immigration reform. And he slammed DeSantis on the issue.

“It's time to take a lot of people out of the shadows and allow them to get work authorizations that would enable businesses to address these critical needs,” he said. “There's too many leaders who are trying to weaponize the issue as opposed to solving the problem.”

He said DeSantis “sent people up to Massachusetts,” a reference to the governor’s controversial decision to spend state tax dollars to transport by plane about 50 Venezuelan migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border last year to the small, upscale island of Martha’s Vineyard. DeSantis said he ordered the migrant flight to call attention to Biden’s failed border security policies.

Tom Perez addresses the final night of the virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 in Milwaukee.
Tannen Maury/AP
Tom Perez addresses the final night of the virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 in Milwaukee.

In May, DeSantis signed one of the strictest immigration laws in the nation. It makes it a crime to transport immigrations who don't have permanent legal status, expands the mandatory employer use of E-Verify to determine if someone can legally work, and provided more money for his efforts to relocate migrants. The governor's proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes another $5 million for relocation efforts.

"He doesn't want to solve the problem. He's trying to weaponize the problem," said Perez. "If we want to address our workforce shortage, one solution is comprehensive immigration reform."

Perez was also critical of Trump for proposing an end to giving “Temporary Protected Status,” or TPS, to Central American immigrants already in the U.S., noting that the construction industry relies heavily on immigrants to fill jobs.

The Biden administration announced last June it would extend TPS by 18 months for more than 300,000 people from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Nepal. Trump sought to end the extensions during his first term as president.

The governor also has turned down at least $600 million in federal spending originating from the Biden administration's three signature pieces of legislation — the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS and Science Act. Together, they authorize spending over $2 trillion over the next decade.

Perez called the package "unprecedented." He said, "A lot of work has been done and a lot of Floridians have benefited."

The laws have earmarked hundreds of billions of dollars for Florida projects, including road and bridge repairs and broadband Internet connectivity.

But Florida missed out on more than $350 million from the Inflation Reduction Act for energy efficiency initiatives after the governor vetoed federal money to be spent on administrative expenses for the programs.

In November, the state Department of Transportation said no to $320 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. That money was going to be used on projects designed to reduce vehicle emissions such as more parking at truck stops and traffic roundabouts.

"Your governor is leaving money on the table," Perez said.

Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.
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