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Lawmakers mull how to spend $10B in federal COVID relief funds

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TALLAHASSEE – Now that President Joe Biden has signed the American Rescue Plan, Florida lawmakers must decide how to spend $10 billion in federal COVID relief funds.

Lawmakers began the legislative session facing a $2.1 billion budget shortfall caused by the pandemic, but the state is about to receive $10.2 billion from the federal government, which at least in theory, will make balancing the budget easier.

“A lot of our ongoing budget challenges are non-recurring,” said Senate Budget Chair Kelli Stargel.

Stargel is mindful of the fact the federal dollars are a one-time payment.

“We’ve got a future minimum wage implementation. We have Medicaid that’s going to be expanding. These are recurring expenses and that influx of money is non-recurring funds. So we’re trying to balance that out in the most appropriate way and how we can kind of pay for non-recurring things with non-recurring dollars,” said Stargel.

Florida Democrats hope the money will be used to back their $100 million plan to provide direct utility relief for Floridians.

“Roughly a million Floridians have been unable to pay their utility bills during COVID,” said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith.

While lawmakers and the governor appear eager to utilize the federal cash injection, a former governor -- now a U.S. senator -- is urging the state to reject it.

In a letter sent to all 50 state governors, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, called the $1.9 trillion relief package “wasteful” and urged they return excess funds.

Stargel isn’t buying the idea.

“You return the funds, it just gets redistributed to New York or California or to other states,” said Stargel.

The governor has suggested lawmakers set the state budget at $96.6 billion, more than $4 billion higher than the current budget.

Even with the new federal funds, lawmakers have remained skeptical of such a large increase.

In total, the American Rescue Plan will bring $17 billion to Florida.