Florida pays more in federal taxes than it gets back in grants
Published: Monday, October 15, 2012 at 9:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 15, 2012 at 9:58 p.m.
The Florida Department of Transportation is expected to get $750,000 in federal funding back because the Alachua County Commission decided in late September that it didn't want the money after all.
The money had been earmarked for creating a portion of the Archer Braid Trail — a bicycle path that will connect the city of Archer to the University of Florida and beyond — through Haile Plantation in Gainesville. Residents' opposition, however, led the commission to decide against that route, instead favoring one that directly connects Archer Road to Tower Road — meaning the federal money would go elsewhere.
But Florida's state and local governments don't get that much federal money to reject — not compared with the federal taxes the state pays, anyway.
Florida residents pay more each year in federal taxes than is received in federal grants to state and local governments, which makes Florida a so-called donor state, according to a 2011 report from Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit research institute.
Based on data from fiscal year 2009, the report found Florida ranked 48th out of 50 states in the federal grants it received per capita. That was a net increase of just one spot in 12 years, even as the state has grown in population.
The County Commission could change its mind about the trail path, but the longer it waits, the more difficult that becomes given timetable constraints, said Jeff Hays, the county's transportation planning manager.
Residents in favor of the Haile Plantation path have expressed concern about the fate of the $750,000 in federal DOT money allocated for the route, which would be returned to FDOT's District 2. The district includes other counties that could receive the rejected money.
County Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said the disparity between Florida and other states is frustrating but that local governments have to make do with what they can get.
“You have to deal with what hand you're dealt, and hopefully, at some point in time, that'll change,” he said.
Florida might not receive as high of a return in grant money as other states, but that doesn't mean federal money should be used just because it's offered, County Commissioner Susan Baird said. If a project isn't necessary, as she felt the Haile Plantation route wasn't, the government should let that money be used elsewhere, she said.
“Why take free money when it's not free?” she asked. “It's costing us all on a national level.”
The Alachua County Commission isn't alone among Florida governments that have rejected federal money.
Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal funding for a high-speed rail service from Orlando to Tampa in February 2011, citing concerns about the potential burden it could heft onto state taxpayers. Most of that money later was redistributed to 15 other states.
Scott has said he wants to turn down an expansion of Medicaid, which preliminary figures show would lead the state to lose out on $2.1 billion in federal funding but save only $3.9 million in the next fiscal year, according to The Associated Press.
At the regional level, the Marion County Commission voted in March 2011 to reject state or federal grants that required putting up local taxpayers' money as well, with the exception of those involving infrastructure projects, according to the Ocala Star-Banner.
Baird said federal money should be used for necessities, such as infrastructure, and not be allocated for what she considers discretionary uses such as the Haile Plantation route.
She said she has heard the argument that if the county doesn't use federal funding, somebody else will take it. For her, she said the key is determining whether the project that would be funded is necessary.
“But if it's between wasting it and giving it back, I'll give it back. And I'm hoping that somebody else will use it better,” she said.
Florida likely will continue to be a top donor state as it has been in years past, Kurt Wenner, vice president of tax research for Florida TaxWatch, said in an email to The Sun.
“It is doubtful that will change much in the near future,” he said in the email. “Florida is, and will likely continue to be, a top donor state.”
In 2009, Florida spent $1.14 in federal taxes per dollar of federal aid it received, according to the Florida TaxWatch report. It paid about $110 billion in federal taxes, or 4.7 percent of the combined total for all states, but received only 4.1 percent, or $22.7 billion, of federal grants.
If its share in grants had equaled its share of taxes, it would have received an additional $3.2 billion in aid, according to TaxWatch.
In federal transportation funding, which would have been used for the Haile Plantation path, Florida ranked 50th in 2009.
Transportation funding largely comes from gas taxes, Hays said.
“You go to the pump, you pay for your gas. You have some local tax in there, some state gas tax and some federal tax,” he said. “Some of the money goes up to the federal government but has to come back down.”
Federal grants, for transportation or any other need, are the primary way Alachua County gets monetary support for its projects at the national level, said Rick Mills, the county's budget director and former legislative affairs director.
But the county's bargaining capacity was reduced this fiscal year when the commission approved a budget that eliminated Mills' former gig as legislative affairs director and shifted some of those duties to Communications Coordinator Mark Sexton.
The commission also cut the county's annual budget for lobbying services from $60,000 to $30,000, Sexton said.
In a time of tight budgets, and given Florida's limited receipt of federal grants, the County Commission must prioritize the projects it wants to accomplish and the funding alternatives commissioners want to pursue, Sexton said.
The Archer Braid Trail is a key priority for the county, Pinkoson said. The commission decided against the Haile Plantation route, and thus gave up its claim to $750,000 in federal money, but the trail still will be created.
“It may not be the route that was done on paper,” Pinkoson said. “We will get a trail built, and it allows some other municipality or county to get a project done that they felt was important.”
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/morganwatkins26.