TALLAHASSEE – Gov. Ron DeSantis’ $99.7 billion state budget proposal, heavily supported by federal COVID-19 recovery dollars, is getting its first reviews from Florida lawmakers in the newly opened 2022 session.
And for outnumbered Florida Democrats, frustrations are mounting.
DeSantis, who regularly spars with the Biden administration, is using $3.8 billion in federal aid money to cover some of his most eye-catching initiatives in the spending plan – even though every Republican member of the U.S. House and Senate voted against the relief spending.
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On Wednesday, the Republican governor’s budget director, Chris Spencer, twisted the political knife even more when explaining his boss’s rationale for using federal dollars to cover a $1.1 billion gas tax break for Florida motorists.
“The inflation we’re experiencing right now is largely the result of monetary and fiscal mismanagement coming out of Washington, D.C.,” Spencer told the Senate Appropriations Committee. “And so the governor felt what was appropriate was to use some of the federal funds we receive to offset that.
“We’re not using Florida tax dollars to offset that gas tax. We’re using some of the state’s fiscal recovery dollars,” he added.
Spencer’s comments tracked the tone of DeSantis’ State of the State speech Tuesday to a joint session of the Republican-controlled Legislature, which opened its 60-day session. Calling the state “free” from federal mask and vaccine policies during the pandemic, DeSantis ridiculed the Biden administration’s guidance.
Last year, DeSantis also said of the American Rescue Plan, “In some respects, it’s Washington at its worst.” He called the package a “Christmas tree,” filled with dollars sought by Democratic interest groups.
DeSantis poised to run for re-election
Democrats acknowledge DeSantis is well-positioned for his reelection run in November and is certain to campaign on the relative strength of the state’s economy.
But Democrats are struggling to shift the narrative and remind Floridians that funding approved by the Democratic-controlled Congress, and signed by Biden, is financing key initiatives advanced by the governor.
“It’s that ‘financial mismanagement’ that he characterizes that is allowing the governor to beat his chest about a budget with reserves and allocate slush funds of $1 billion,” Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, said of Spencer’s remarks. “It’s Twilight Zone.”
The governor’s office initially put the amount of federal aid in his budget proposal at $3.4 billion, but now acknowledges it’s more like $3.8 billion. Republicans on House and Senate budget committees have generally endorsed the governor’s approach in opening hearings.
That bounty of federal cash is not only financing the $1.1 billion gas tax reduction but it’s also covering the $100 million needed to clean and close the Piney Point phosphate site in Manatee County and the governor’s own $100 million Job Growth Grant fund, which can distribute needed dollars to community construction projects.
Biden often attacked by DeSantis
While DeSantis steadily attacks the Biden administration, with Florida having sued the White House four times over vaccine mandates and immigration policies, the Republican governor is capitalizing politically on financial support from Washington.
On Tuesday, the House budget committee similarly tussled over the role of the federal relief dollars in meeting DeSantis’ high-profile spending priorities.
The gas tax cut – a 25-cents-a-gallon reduction – would begin in July and extend for five months, through the November election. Another $550 million for Resilient Florida, which would help cities and counties pay for infrastructure improvements needed to combat climate change’s effects, also is financed with American Rescue Plan money.
In addition, the $1,000 bonuses spread among teachers, law enforcement and first responders that the governor wants lawmakers to approve is financed with the federal aid.
House Democrats had prodded Spencer to acknowledge the importance of the Washington cash. But Spencer downplayed its role in the governor’s $99.7 billion spending proposal for next year, which includes a remarkable $15 billion in reserves.
“They were not critical,” Spencer said Tuesday, in response to questions from Democrats seeking him to characterize the dollars. Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, refused to accept that explanation.
“I hear that, on the one hand, it’s not so significant,” she said. “But on the other, we’re going to make significant changes in how we interact with the people of Florida, through tax relief because we have these federal funds. It sounds a little incongruent.”
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport