New round of economic stimulus helps Florida but creates more GOP discord

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Kirby Wilson
·7 min read
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Last week, Congress passed its most consequential piece of legislation in months. Among other things, the 5,600-page combined economic stimulus and federal budget measure averted a government shutdown and gave Americans hundreds of billions of dollars in relief. On Sunday, after initially criticizing the measure, President Donald Trump signed the $2.3 trillion package into law.

Like any massive piece of federal legislation, the law will have sweeping consequences for Floridians. Here are five things you need to know about the law and the politics that led to its creation.

1. The bill extends federal unemployment benefits — including some that lapsed months ago

If you collect state unemployment between December 26, 2020, and March 14, 2021, you will be eligible for $300 in additional federal weekly benefits. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which passed in the spring, included a similar provision which added $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits to state payments. The provision, called Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, expired in July, then was briefly revived by an executive memorandum from President Trump in August. Now, that provision is back.

The bill also extends the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which paid up to $275 in weekly federal benefits to those who wouldn’t otherwise be eligible: the self employed, independent contractors, etc. That program expired Saturday, leaving thousands of Floridians in a state of uncertainty. The federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which extends unemployment benefits by up to 13 weeks past the 12 weeks normally offered by Florida, was also renewed after expiring Saturday.

It’s unclear how many Floridians currently rely on the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation programs, which briefly expired between Saturday and when Trump signed the relief and spending bill Sunday. Requests to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity for those figures were not returned Monday or Tuesday.

Although Trump briefly let those programs lapse, this week’s federal payments will be paid out, the Department of Labor announced Tuesday.

The department’s unemployment benefits dashboard shows that Florida saw nearly 32,700 coronavirus-related unemployment claims in the first two weeks of December.

2. It has divided Florida’s Republican leaders

Is this spending bill good? If you’re a Republican, it depends on which elected official you ask. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a former congressman, blasted Congress’ process, noting that the final text of the gargantuan bill was available just hours before it passed.

“Now, I don’t know about you all, but I can’t read 5,000 pages in six hours,” DeSantis quipped.

The bill was so long because it was a combination of two complicated pieces of legislation: the $900 billion coronavirus economic relief package and the $1.4 trillion spending bill that will keep the federal government funded until Sept. 30, 2021. Both pieces of legislation came after months of negotiation between the White House and congressional leaders.

Sen. Rick Scott, one of just six U.S. senators to vote against the bill, also criticized the process and the cost of the bill.

“In classic Washington style, vital programs are being attached to an omnibus spending bill that mortgages our children and grandchildren’s futures without even giving members a chance to read it,” Scott said in a statement.

But Florida’s other U.S. Senator, Marco Rubio, was instrumental in creating the federal Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program which was extended by the bill. A provision championed by Rubio also helped ensure that residents who are married to non-citizens would still be eligible for the $600 direct payment coming to millions of American adults because of the bill.

“You sent me here to solve problems and to make a difference, and that’s what we did this year,” Rubio said in a video message on the paycheck loans.

Florida’s most famous Republican resident, President Donald Trump, embodied the divide in the party over the relief and spending measure. When Congress first passed the bill, he slammed the relief portion for being inadequate, calling for $2,000 direct payments to Americans instead of the $600 payments currently in the bill. (A measure to increase the direct payments to Trump’s preferred $2,000 amount passed the House of Representatives Monday. Its fate in the Republican-controlled Senate is unclear.) Trump also criticized portions of the spending package, including some recommended by his own budget proposal. But on Sunday, after days of suspense, the president signed the measure.

When all was said and done, the bill got good reviews from Florida’s Republican Party.

“Thank you @POTUS for signing the stimulus bill that will provide much-needed help for hard-working families,” the Florida GOP’s Twitter account wrote Monday.

3. Paycheck Protection Program loans return

The relief bill included some $284 billion more for the popular program, which gives businesses loans that can turn into grants if the businesses use the money to keep staff employed. (The Tampa Bay Times and its related companies got such a loan earlier this year.)

In December, it was revealed that the first round of paycheck protection loan money went disproportionately to some bigger businesses — although more than nine in 10 loans were for less than $250,000. About 423,000 Florida businesses got loans the first time around, the federal Small Business Administration has reported.

This time, businesses that apply for the loans can’t be larger than 300 employees, and loans are capped at $2 million. Businesses have to show they lost more than 25% of their normal revenue because of the virus to get a loan.

4. Concert venues get boost

There are few businesses that were hit harder by the coronavirus pandemic than independent concert venues. Susan Crockett, president and CEO of Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall, said her organization had seen earned revenues fall by almost 99% since the theater closed in March.

The coronavirus relief and spending package offers a lifeline to venues, concert promoters, producers, theaters and museums. Those businesses are eligible for up to $10 million in grants from the federal government if they can show they lost as much as 25% of their revenue in one of 2020′s four quarters.

In April, Ruth Eckerd Hall got about a $1.2 million paycheck protection loan, which allowed the venue to preserve 239 jobs. But once that funding dried up, the company was forced to let go some 150 employees, Crockett said.

Now, with the latest round of federal grants in its sights, Ruth Eckerd Hall wants its workers back.

“This is a light at the end of the tunnel if this comes through,” Crockett said.

5. Red tide, surprise medical bills and more

Because the coronavirus relief package was folded into a budget bill, the measure includes a sprawling laundry list of unrelated items. Adults in Florida making less than $75,000 will get $600 direct payments from the coronavirus relief bill — similar to the $1,200 direct payments residents got from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Floridians will also be more protected from surprise medical bills from out-of-network providers, and they’ll see about $15 billion worth of their taxpayer dollars go to Space Force spending. Billions more will go to environmental projects in Florida such as the central Everglades ecosystem restoration.

Perhaps the most notable of these environmental efforts is the $25 million set aside by the bill for researching “harmful algal blooms associated with water resources development projects.” In 2018, Florida was hit hard by a red tide with a stench that repelled tourists from the state’s normally pristine Gulf Coast beaches.

However, the money isn’t going directly to researching why the Gulf Coast was hit so hard then. Instead, federal researchers will focus on Lake Okeechobee, which was also devastated by a different toxic algae bloom in 2018. The outbreak became a major talking point during that year’s governor’s race, with then-congressman Ron DeSantis notably blaming the outbreak on fertilizers used by South Florida’s massive and influential sugar industry.

Contact Kirby Wilson at kwilson@tampabay.com. Follow @kirbywtweets