Florida could gain billions from stimulus package


Published: Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 9:43 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 9:43 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Florida stands to gain more than $12 billion from the U.S. House's stimulus plan including money that could help balance the state's budget, build highways and bridges, expand mass transit and modernize schools.

The House passed the legislation Wednesday. The vote was 244-188 with overwhelmingly Democratic support and most Republicans in opposition.

The biggest chunk of money potentially headed for Florida would be $4.26 billion for the state-federal Medicaid program that provides health care for the poor. Millions more would go directly to local governments, school districts and individuals.

"It would represent a significant amount of relief from the budgetary conditions under which we are currently operating," said Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican who chairs one of two budget councils in the Florida House.

Those conditions over the past two years have been marked by a steady decline in general revenue, mainly sales, corporate income and real estate transaction taxes, as the state and national economies sank into recession.

Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday signed into law $2.5 billion in spending cuts, trust fund raids, money shifts and traffic fine increases to avoid a looming deficit in the current budget now down to about $65 billion that runs through June 30. Lawmakers now are focusing on next year's budget and a forecast spending-over-revenue gap of about $4 billion.

The U.S. Senate is working on a separate stimulus plan and differences would have to be worked out before a final version can go to President Barack Obama.

The House plan could give Florida $3.5 billion in state budget aid. Crist would be able to use 39 percent to fill budget holes at his discretion while the remaining 61 percent would have to go to education.

Florida, though, could lose the education portion because state support for public schools has fallen below 2006 levels. State officials say that requirement is unfair because Florida, unlike most states, combines state and local school dollars into a single funding program. They hope the Senate will lift that restriction.

The Medicaid money could free up some state dollars now going into that program for other uses. Florida lawmakers are hoping it will allow them to avoid borrowing $700 million from the state's tobacco settlement endowment, a key provision of the just-passed deficit-elimination plan.

The endowment named for the late Gov. Lawton Chiles invests tobacco money for future use on health programs for children and the elderly.

Under the House plan, Florida also would receive $1.5 billion for highways and bridges, $961 million for school modernization, $285 million for mass transit, $37 million for other rail projects, $196 million for wastewater treatment and sewers, $30 million for the Headstart program and $46 million in education technology grants.

It's also expected to save or create 329,550 Florida jobs and reduce the state's 8.1 percent unemployment rate by 2.4 percentage points through the end of next year. That would tie Florida with Ohio for the second-biggest jobless rate drop in the nation, just behind the 2.5 percent decrease forecast for Michigan.

Crist, a Republican, has been lobbying members of Florida's congressional delegation from both parties to support the stimulus package.

"I think overall it's going to be best for Florida and best for America," Crist said. "If this is going to pass, which I firmly believe that it will, ... certainly we ought to fight for Florida's fair share."

Republicans in the state Legislature have been generally supportive, but Florida's GOP representatives in Congress have not.

U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, called the stimulus package a "pork ridden bailout that produces few jobs, sends billions of your money to corrupt organizations like ACORN, and does nothing to put money back in the hands of American taxpayers."

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