Gov. DeSantis targets federal COVID relief money to undo some of the pandemic’s economic wreckage

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to spend $4.1 billion of the cash the state expects under President Joe Biden’s $9.1 trillion COVID rescue plan on an array of infrastructure, health care, tourist-marketing, jobs, and transportation projects, he announced Tuesday.

The governor also proposed one-time bonuses of $1,000 to the first responders working on the front line during the COVID pandemic.

“We know that the pandemic put a lot of strain on our first responders, EMTs, sworn law enforcement, firefighters. So, we believe that we should recognize their sacrifices over the last year,” DeSantis said during a news conference in Tallahassee.

He said he would send his recommendations to Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson and would defer to them, within reason, about how to spend the rest of the federal aid. The Legislature is in the third week of its 60-day regular session.

DeSantis estimated Florida’s share of the federal money at as much as $10 billion.

“We don’t know exactly how much money we are going to get. We are going to wait on some guidance,” he said.

DeSantis wants to use some of the funding to address issues concerning Florida’s workers’ compensation website called CONNECT, which crashed for several months as jobless workers applied for benefits.

He would spend $73.2 million to fix that program, plus $72 million for mental health programs, $41.7 million to fix National Guard facilities, $125 million for technical job training and apprenticeships, and $10 million for Alzheimer’s Disease research.

That last item would supplement the $5 million for research he asked for in his proposed state budget.

DeSantis also wants to boost a four-year, $1 billion coastal flooding initiative in his proposed budget by another $1 billion. He would give $260 million to the struggling cruise industry.

Close to $1 billion would restore transportation projects deferred because of the pandemic. And $50 million would boost tourism marketing.

The Republican governor renewed his complaint that the federal package is shortchanging Florida compared to other states because it targets unemployed workers rather than simply dividing the money equally between states, and he feels his policies saved jobs.

“A lot of those states that have much higher unemployment are getting much, billions and billions of dollars more,” he said. “Nevertheless, it is what it is.”

DeSantis, who has been a critic of Democrats and President Joe Biden, said that Florida’s policies have been more effective than blue states such as New York and California.

“We still have millions of kids across this country who are denied access to in-person education. We still have businesses closed in many parts of this country,” DeSantis said.

“Those lockdowns haven’t worked. They’ve done great damage to our country. We can never let something like this happen again.”