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Florida

Nikki Fried calls the infrastructure bill a 'big deal' for Floridians, but Ron DeSantis disagrees

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried on Tuesday touted as “a big deal” billions of dollars headed to Florida for roads, bridges, airports and expanding broadband service in rural areas as part of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill on President Joe Biden’s desk.

Meanwhile, Gov. Ron DeSantis, who Fried hopes to unseat next year, has questioned “pork-barrel” spending in the bill while also arguing Florida might not get its fair share.

“It seems like there's a disproportionate amount of money going to New York and New Jersey, and that Florida is not getting a really significant share out of over $1 trillion,” DeSantis said Tuesday while in Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Hernando County. “I mean, they've saying we're gonna get what, $20 billion, like that's not a lot compared to how big, you know, the state is.”

According to a fact sheet from the White House, Florida is in line to receive just over $19 billion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which got final approval last week from the U.S. House. In addition to money for roads, bridges, airports and broadband, the package will provide money for such things as electric-vehicle charging networks, wildfire protection, cyber security and water improvements over the next five years.

Individual projects are not listed, and Fried, a Democratic candidate for governor, said local communities will have to aggressively push to have projects prioritized.

"Right now, we have an allocated $19 billion, with the possibility of another $30 billion that, if done creatively, done smartly, we can also lure in other private investment to be partners in a lot of these projects," Fried said Tuesday while at the Douglas Road Metrorail Station in Miami. "And it's also going to be partnered with other local and state projects. So, it is not just federal dollars, there has to be buy-in for some of that additional dollars, both on the state level, the local level and, of course, our private investors.”

The bill will allow states to compete for additional money tied to highways, bridges and electric-vehicle charging stations. Florida should also draw some of the $3.5 billion designated for a national weatherization program intended to reduce energy costs for families.

Fried said the federal package is about investing in the state’s future.

“These are much needed and long overdue investments to make our communities safer, to make our infrastructure more efficient,” Fried said. “Unfortunately, I likely am going to be the only statewide official out here talking about the ways it's going to benefit our state and thanking our federal partners for helping us keep Florida growing.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave Florida a “C” grade on a 2021 infrastructure report card, just above the national “C-minus” rating. New York and New Jersey both drew “C-minus” grades.

“Policymakers must understand we are only as strong as our weakest link — if our roadways become too rough to travel, if our bridges close to heavier traffic like ambulances, or if our levees protect one community at the expense of the one next door, the economy grinds to a halt,” the society said in the annual report’s executive summary.

Asked about the infrastructure package, DeSantis said he’d like to know more, specifically "is Florida being treated well” or whether money is being funneled to “a bunch of very, very high-tax and dysfunctional states.”

DeSantis, frequently mentioned as a possible 2024 Republican presidential candidate, raised similar arguments about federal COVID-19 stimulus packages.

“We got penalized (in the COVID-19 stimulus packages) because our economy was actually doing much better than the lockdown states,” DeSantis said Tuesday. “So, we got less money than our population.”

During an appearance Monday in Zephyrhills, DeSantis derided the infrastructure bill — which received some support from congressional Republicans — as “pork-barrel spending.”

He pointed to a pilot program in the bill that would study a “driving” tax based on the number of miles people drive, an idea that has been suggested as a replacement for gas taxes.

“They say the gas tax doesn't get enough money,” DeSantis said. “They want to monitor the mileage that you're driving on your car and then tax you per the mile. They open the door for that in that bill. That will never fly In the state of Florida. We are not going to allow that to happen.”

A similar proposal for a study was pitched during the 2015 legislative session by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. The proposal did not pass.

While individual projects were not announced, the White House fact sheet said Florida is in line for:

  • $13.1 billion for highway programs and $245 million for bridge replacements and repairs.
  • $2.6 billion to improve public transportation across the state.
  • $1.6 billion for water improvements.
  • $1.2 billion for airport development.
  • $198 million to expand an electric-vehicle charging network.
  • A minimum of $100 million to expand broadband coverage, with a projection that it will provide access to at least 707,000 Floridians.
  • $29 million for cybersecurity.
  • $26 million to protect against wildfires.

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