State Politics

Budget panel OKs $4 billion in stimulus funds

TALLAHASSEE — A special legislative panel Wednesday approved $4 billion in federal stimulus money for spending during the current budget year and used some of those dollars to avert a deficit.

The Legislative Budget Commission obtained deficit reduction relief thanks to nearly $1.9 billion in stimulus money Florida is getting during the 2008-09 budget year for Medicaid, which provides health care for the needy.

The stimulus law increased the federal government’s share of the program, and that freed up $913 million in state dollars previously appropriated for Medicaid. It’s more than enough to fill a $700 million hole in the present budget that runs through June 30.

The deficit resulted from continued shortfalls in taxes, fees and other revenues because of the global recession and collapse of Florida’s housing market.

Besides the Medicaid money, other major stimulus allocations this year are about $1.4 billion for transportation and $580 million for education.

The commission also approved stimulus dollars for crime victims; public assistance administration; grants for weatherizing homes; senior citizen nutrition and employment programs; child support enforcement; and various programs to help unemployed workers and youth.

The current-year stimulus is the first installment of about $13 billion state officials are expecting to get over three budget years.

Of the three-year total, $2.2 billion in education money is contingent upon getting a waiver from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan because state support of public schools has declined since 2006.

State officials were expecting to get final guidance Wednesday from the U.S. Department of Education so they could immediately submit Florida’s waiver application. Those guidelines, though, have been delayed for a few more days. Once the application is submitted it’s expected to take two weeks to get a decision.

Some lawmakers are worried it may not come before the regular legislative session ends on May 1 because both chambers have included about half of the waiver money in their budget proposals for the new fiscal year beginning July 1.

If Duncan denies the waiver, the Legislature would have to meet in special session to find ways to fill a gap of about $1 billion.

Gov. Charlie Crist, who broke with most of his fellow Republicans to support the stimulus plan proposed by President Barack Obama, has repeatedly said he’s confident Florida will get the waiver.