DeSantis proposes $1000 bonuses for first responders as part of federal stimulus aid, plus millions for environment, roads, ports

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Gray Rohrer and Steven Lemongello, Orlando Sentinel
·4 min read
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TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Ron DeSantis wants lawmakers to spend $4.1 billion of the expected $10 billion the state will receive in COVID-19 relief from the federal government on an array of projects, including environmental programs, speeding up transportation projects, giving $1000 bonuses to first responders and setting up an emergency fund to respond to hurricanes.

DeSantis sent a letter Tuesday to House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, outlining his recommendations. He said he wanted to give lawmakers some leeway with the remaining $6 billion, considering it’s still uncertain when the funds will be given to the states and what the federal guidelines will be on how it can be spent. Some of the remaining funds, though, should go into the state’s reserves, he said.

The additional money is part of the $350 billion in aid for states and cities included in the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress last week and signed by President Joe Biden.

DeSantis has complained about Florida’s share of the money because part of it was divided among states based on their share of unemployment at the end of the year. Florida’s jobless rate has trended downward based on his policies of opening up the state and not imposing coronavirus-related restrictions, DeSantis argues, and shouldn’t be punished for its rebounding economy.

He also took issue with a suggestion from U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, DeSantis’ predecessor as governor, that states spend aid money strictly on pandemic-related costs and return any leftover to the federal government. DeSantis claimed that under the law, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin would be able to give any money sent back to other states.

“If Florida were to send the money back, Yellin is going to send it to Illinois, California, New York or New Jersey,” DeSantis said. “I don’t think that would make sense for Floridians, for us to be giving even more money to the blue states that are already getting such a big windfall in this bill.”

DeSantis said the pandemic “put an awful lot of strain on our first responders ... and so we believe that we should recognize their sacrifice over the last year.”

The one-time $1,000 bonus payment to all fire, sworn law enforcement and EMTs, would be administered in partnership with other state agencies.

“We want to fund this in this current fiscal year,” DeSantis said. “We can get those payments out as quickly as possible.”

Here is a breakdown of the spending sought by DeSantis:

-$1 billion for a “resiliency” fund that would go toward environmental projects aimed at responding to the effects of climate change and sea level rise. The money would be on top of the $1 billion contained in DeSantis’ initial budget recommendation, made before the relief package was passed.

-$1 billion for an emergency management response fund that would allow Florida to avoid spending its reserves to pay for expenses related to natural disasters such as hurricanes while it waits for reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which can sometimes lag for years.

-$938.4 million to supplement the state’s transportation work program, which has been hit with revenue shortfalls because fewer drivers were on the roads, especially last spring and summer during the initial stages of the pandemic. The money would speed up work on road projects that were slowed down because of the shortfall.

-$258.2 million in relief payments for Florida’s seaports, which experienced decreased volume, especially in cruise ships when the pandemic hit.

-$208.4 million to pay for $1,000 direct payments to first responders – police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

-$150 million for the Job Growth Grant Fund, which pays for grants to local governments for road projects and workforce training programs.

-$129.8 million to update the state’s unemployment system and pay for ongoing operations associated with the increased costs due to the higher volume of claims spurred by the pandemic.

-$125 million for education and employment training programs.

-$60 million for workforce development grants.

-$72 million to update Florida’s mental health data management system.

-$50 million for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing group, to supplement the $50 million in DeSantis’ original budget suggestions.

-$50 million for the economic development transportation fund, which pays for road projects.

-$10 million for Alzheimer’s disease research.

Lawmakers will consider DeSantis’ proposals during the ongoing legislative session, which is set to end April 30.

grohrer@orlandosentinel.com