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Florida Democrats Want Lawmakers To Have More Say On Federal Aid

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WLRN News
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TALLAHASSEE --- House Democrats want assurances from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office that the Legislature will be involved if another round of coronavirus-related federal aid is approved by Congress.

With Congress and the Biden administration discussing further financial stimulus, Democrats on the state House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday said legislative oversight is needed for any money headed to Florida.

“We don't know with certainty what the Congress will do, but in the event that there is a further allocation, we're part of it, to follow this structure,” Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said during a presentation of DeSantis’ proposed $96.6 billion state budget for the upcoming 2021-2022 fiscal year.

As DeSantis directed the use of billions of dollars of federal CARES Act money last year, Democrats remain perturbed that a special session wasn’t called for the Legislature to address impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, which cut state tax revenues, damaged businesses and caused major problems in the unemployment system.

“Where I'm frustrated is the fact that I don't feel that the Appropriations Committee in the Legislature was really involved in any meaningful way in these (past) decisions,” Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, said to Chris Spencer, director of the governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. “I appreciate your comment that you consulted with the (legislative) staff. But I'm making this statement, sort of, I guess, prospectively, now with the possibility that there may be another round of this. I mean, I certainly hope that the governor's office and you and the folks that are working there will think about how we can look at the constitutional responsibility of our branch to be the ones, you know, appropriate the funds.”

Spencer said DeSantis, as a former member of Congress, “respects” the collaborative legislative process, while adding the governor’s proposed 2021-2022 budget doesn’t include speculation about future federal pandemic funding.

Spencer also defended the past allocations of CARES Act dollars, noting “during the emergency response to the public health emergency, a lot of decisions were made to respond in a timely manner.”

Overall, the state has directly received $8.1 billion from the CARES Act, which was approved by Congress last spring, Spencer said. Another $8 billion has been distributed directly to private and local entities in the state.

Spencer and other administration officials have gone before House and Senate appropriations panels this week to detail DeSantis’ proposed 2021-2022 budget, which was released Thursday. The proposal is an initial step for lawmakers, who will be responsible for crafting a final budget during the legislative session that will start March 2.

DeSantis’ proposal would be about $4.3 billion higher than the current year’s budget. While a large part of that difference is related to federal money, the proposal has quickly drawn questions as the pandemic has hammered state revenues.

House Republicans, for example, questioned a DeSantis proposal that would rely on increased local property tax revenues --- known in the education world as required local effort --- to fund much of an increase in public-school spending. Also, they questioned $413 million in bonding proposed by the governor.

“Have y'all given any thought to, you know where we are as it relates to such a deficit in (general revenue) in this 21-22 (fiscal year) and recurring (general revenue), and how that will affect our bond rating moving forward?” asked House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City.

Among other things, DeSantis has proposed issuing bonds to help fund a four-year, $1 billion grant program to fight the impacts of rising sea levels. Other examples include bonding renovations of Waller Park on the west side of the state Capitol and part of the replacement of the heating, air ventilation and cooling system in the Capitol.

House leaders have generally opposed using bond financing, as it increases long-term debt. Spencer said the state has an “ample” bonding capacity.

“During the pandemic, there was a lot of concern from all the states about what the impact of the pandemic would be on states,” Spencer said. “Florida's high credit rating was reaffirmed, and largely in part because of the institutional controls that are in place here in Florida to ensure that Florida will never become a runaway debt state.”

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, questioned the increased $217.1 million in local property tax revenues that would be used to bolster public-school funding. The increase would result from holding a tax rate unchanged, leading to increased revenue because property values have gone up.

“To be clear, given how we define tax increases by rolling things back to sort of reach the same level of revenue, this would effectively, the budget’s predicated on a $217 million tax increase at the local level, based on not rolling back the millage (tax) rate,” Fine said.

Spencer disagreed, saying “we would not view it as a tax increase.”