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Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Florida House Revamps Plan For Stimulus Money

man holding microphone gestures with other hand, with crowd behind him
News Service of Florida
House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, says the $6.2 billion offer proposed by the Florida House addresses "a tremendous amount of infrastructure issues."

The Florida House's new plan includes going along with Senate on spending $100 million to clean up Piney Point in Manatee County; $300 million on a statewide wildlife corridor; and $2 billion to offset losses to the state transportation trust fund during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Florida House on Friday moved away from a plan to use the largest chunk of expected federal stimulus dollars on long-overdue building maintenance, while going along with Senate spending priorities and eyeing money for a children’s book-distribution program.

As talks continue over a new state budget, the House pitched a $6.2 billion offer Friday morning for using stimulus money that Florida is slated to receive under the American Rescue Plan Act.

The offer included going along with Senate on spending $100 million to clean up a former phosphate plant in Manatee County; $300 million on a statewide wildlife corridor under the Florida Forever land preservation program; $2 billion to offset losses to the state transportation trust fund during the COVID-19 pandemic; and $500 million to convert septic tanks to sewage systems.

“The way this money came to us was, actually it was specific for infrastructure issues,” House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, said. “So, we have a tremendous amount of infrastructure issues. Whether we talk about deferred maintenance, whether we talk about flooding issues, resiliency issues or mapping issues, when we talk about the $2 billion for the transportation trust fund, a lot of money that's being directed specifically for infrastructure related issues.”

Use of the stimulus money is a key issue as House and Senate leaders negotiate a budget for the fiscal year that will start July 1. The annual legislative session is scheduled to end April 30.

Any stimulus money not included in the budget would go into reserves, potentially held for the 2022-2023 fiscal year.

“We have parameters. We have to spend a lot of this within three years, but then also, a lot of it can be used for things that we've had shortfalls for based on what's happened,” Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said.

In its proposal Friday, the House also matched a Senate request for nearly $264 million for higher-education construction projects; $100 million for the state Emergency Operations Center; and $30 million for an African-American cultural and historical grant program.

The House had earlier released a proposal for using $7.94 billion of the federal money but revamped that proposal in the Friday offer. Among the changes was raising from $140 million to $500 million its proposal for the Resilient Florida Trust Fund, a grant program that would address sea-level rise and flooding.

The House maintained a proposal to spend $1 billion for an emergency preparedness and response fund and to put $350 million into the state’s Budget Stabilization Fund, which is a reserve fund.

Meanwhile, the new House offer includes $150 million for the New Worlds Reading Initiative, a program backed by House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, to deliver books to struggling readers in kindergarten through fifth grade.

The House voted 114-0 to approve the book program (HB 3) on Wednesday.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has his own priority on the table, the Florida Forever funding to complete “missing links” in the Florida Wildlife Corridor. The corridor is intended to provide habitat for wide-ranging species like Florida panthers and black bears.

Simpson said the Senate is focusing on “one-time, dynamic” projects that can stimulate the economy.

“I believe the first few that we have rolled out, that we would really like to do, things are going to be structural in nature,” Simpson said Wednesday. “Whether it's going to be eventually roads, the water projects we've talked about, whether it's septic to sewer, or other areas.”

On Friday, the House dramatically scaled back a proposal to undertake $3.5 billion in long-deferred maintenance of state buildings. The House is now seeking to spend $350 million on the projects.

“We realize that's a tremendous amount of money to try to get projects up and finished in a period of time,” Trumbull said. “So, what we did is we took 10 percent of that money, $350 million, and (we’ll) try to see how that plays out over the year. And hopefully (we’ll) be able to come back with a plan, moving forward on how we can affect the $6.7 billion in deferred maintenance that's out there.”

Shortly after the Republican-dominated Senate introduced its initial offer on the stimulus funding this week, Senate Democrats released a list of proposals they said would provide more direct relief to Floridians struggling during the pandemic.

The Democrats proposal, for example, would put money into expanding Medicaid, providing rent and eviction protections and funding affordable housing.

Simpson said bonuses for first responders and teachers, a proposal by Gov. Ron DeSantis, remain in the mix of potential spending. But he said issues such as rent relief are not in the Senate plan because the “federal government is pouring really billions of dollars into these areas.”

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