Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis rejected calls from a fellow Republican, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), to return funds in excess of COVID-19-related costs that are being handed out to state and local governments under the $1.9 trillion relief package, funds that Scott has denounced as “bonus cash to plug budget holes.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” DeSantis told Politico on March 16, in response to a question about Scott’s suggestion to give back to the federal government money over and above what would reimburse actual expenses incurred by Florida in its COVID-19 response.
“If Florida were to send the money back, [Treasury Secretary Janet] Yellen is going to send it to Illinois, California, New York, or New Jersey,” DeSantis said. “I don’t think that would make sense for Floridians—for us to be giving even more money to the blue states that are already getting such a big windfall in this bill.”
A vocal critic of the American Rescue Act, Scott wrote an open letter to governors and mayors across the United States on the day that House Democrats passed the rescue bill—without a single Republican vote. Scott urged the officials to “reject and return any federal funding in excess of their federally-reimbursable COVID-19 related expenses,” arguing that this would “serve the best interests of hard-working American taxpayers and will send a clear message to Washington: politicians in Congress should quit recklessly spending other people’s money.”
The Republican senator, who is said to be considering a 2024 presidential run, acknowledged that the federal government “has an important role to play” in helping local governments offset the costs of the response to COVID-19.
“However, American taxpayer dollars should not be used as bonus cash to plug budget holes caused by decades of poor fiscal management. This is not a taxpayer-funded bailout; it is a reimbursement for specific, COVID-related expenses,” Scott wrote.
He criticized that the American Rescue Plan “dedicates less than 10 percent of its funding to actually fight COVID-19” and said that, under the bill, “state and local governments are set to receive an additional $360 billion in taxpayer dollars, wholly unrelated to responding to the pandemic.”
The call to reject the funds was in character for Scott, who has a history of turning down federal money. When he served as governor of Florida, Scott refused to let the state accept federal funds to expand Medicaid health care coverage under Obamacare.
DeSantis, however, has already outlined his plans for spending what could be as much as $10 billion earmarked for Florida under the American Rescue Plan. In a March 16 letter to legislative leaders (pdf), DeSantis provided a list of line items, including some $208 million in bonuses to first responders who have been on the front lines of the pandemic fight, $56 million for reemployment assistance operations, around $3 billion in various infrastructure, resiliency, and emergency response initiatives, and $10 million for Alzheimer’s disease research.
“We are certain that appropriations are eligible to be made to deliver meaningful relief to Floridians and businesses and to protect the state’s fiscal health,” DeSantis wrote.
He also complained that, because Congress decided to distribute the funds according to unemployment levels, rather than population, Florida isn’t getting its fair share.
“Congress is punishing states like Florida who successfully managed the COVID-19 pandemic and rejected life-ruining school closures and lockdowns,” DeSantis wrote.
“Our economic comeback is strong, and our unemployment rate reflects our prudent approach.”
At a March 15 press conference, DeSantis blamed the Senate—and implicitly its Republican members like Scott—for not fighting to amend the bill’s appropriations mechanism that he said is unfair to Florida.
“The Senate didn’t correct the fact that Florida is getting a lot less than what we would be entitled to on a per capita basis,” DeSantis said, according to the Palm Beach Post.
DeSantis and Scott have been at odds on a number of issues, with the governor blaming the senator for problems with Florida’s unemployment system, which was developed when Scott held the state’s top office.