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Federal aid focus of Florida TaxWatch's Annual State of the Taxpayer Dinner

Florida Tax Watch's annual State of the Taxpayer dinner drew about 180 people to the AC Hotel in downtown Tallahassee on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022.
Valerie Crowder
Florida Tax Watch's annual State of the Taxpayer dinner drew about 180 people to the AC Hotel in downtown Tallahassee on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022.

Political insiders spoke to a group of political insiders about how to make the most out of billions of dollars in federal aid coming to Florida at a recent dinner in Tallahassee.

“We were served up a plateful of politics and insight from legislators and individuals that really care about Florida’s taxpayers. This was a convening where folks that are involved in the daily process came to hear about the people that they’re serving," said Florida TaxWatch Vice President Tony Carvajal, who explained that the ticketed dinner was dedicated to everyone who calls the Sunshine State home. "Often times, we call them Floridians. Today we’re calling them taxpayers as a reminder of the importance they play in the state.”

On Wednesday, about 180 political insiders attended the dinner at the AC Hotel in Cascades Park, where they listened to state lawmakers and cabinet members speak about the state of government spending.

Industry group representatives, political party leaders, former lawmakers and advocacy group members were in attendance.

Every legislative session, Florida lawmakers are tasked with passing a budget for the next fiscal year. And for the last four decades the government spending watchdog organization Florida TaxWatch has been monitoring how those dollars are spent.

The organization has two priorities as lawmakers meet at the Capitol for the next several weeks, said Florida TaxWatch Chairman and former U.S. Senator George LeMieux. One is making sure the state’s corporate income tax rate doesn’t increase. And the second is making sure that billions of dollars in federal aid are spent responsibly — and that means not spending money on small, local projects.

“It means a transformative amount of money spent to do things like broadband, or building roads, or fixing an airport or doing things that are going to improve the quality of life for all Floridians. The project should be big enough. That five years from now people will say, 'Oh, yeah, that's what they spent the money on.'"

For infrastructure, the state is expected to get about $13 billion in federal aid over the next five years as part of the Biden administration’s Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act. A chunk of that money is expected to help fund broadband — an investment that has the support of both Democrats and Republicans.

Speaking at the dinner, Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur says that’s one area where he’d like to see a massive investment. Brodeur says it’s needed especially in rural counties where there’s a demand for telemedicine, but residents lack access to high-speed internet.

“We have entire counties in Florida, where we don't have a psychiatrist that accepts Medicaid, entire counties," Brodeur said. "And so we've got very vulnerable populations experiencing experiencing huge mental health issues that have no access to anything.”

Another pot of federal money lawmakers will figure out how to spend over the coming weeks is earmarked for education. The state has gotten about $15 billion during the COVID-19 pandemic to help safely reopen schools.

Republican Rep. Randy Fine is the chairman of the K-12 subcommittee on appropriations. To him, it’s money that the state doesn’t really need, but must spend. So far, the state hasn’t allocated about $12 billion of that total.

“When the federal government borrows money and gives it to us for stuff we don't need? What are we going to do with it all? Now we're trying we're trying to backfill, where can we backfill? Where can we do things?”

Not everyone speaking at the dinner criticized the massive investment in federal relief dollars.

State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — who’s also a Democratic candidate for governor — praised the Biden administration for investing more money in helping families and the state economy recover.

“While we're incredibly fortunate to have an abundant resources from the federal government, ensuring that those resources and are distributed fairly equitably, and the best way possible to help our families keep working and benefit Florida taxpayers will be one of our state's biggest challenges this year.”

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.