Florida’s governor won’t cut budget amid growing coronavirus outbreak

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Florida Ron DeSantis, facing increasing pressure as coronavirus spreads through the state, issued a statewide stay-at-home order Wednesday.

As the financial impacts spread in tandem with the virus, DeSantis is taking a wait-and-see approach on the state budget lawmakers recently sent him.

Florida has one of the highest rates of infection from COVID-19 and the third-highest number of adults in the country at-risk due to their age or underlying medical condition.

DeSantis, a Republican who won office in November 2018 after being endorsed by President Trump, has yet to act on his second state budget — a $93.2 billion spending plan that would take effect July 1 amid the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak.

“I’m just going to let the budget sit for now. I’m not going to start vetoing everything, and I’m not going to sign it yet,” DeSantis said during an emergency press briefing March 25. "Let’s kind of see how the situation unfolds. This is a constant thing where you are reassessing everything, you know.”

The spending plan, which would take effect July 1, sets aside $300 million for the state's response to the novel coronavirus and it includes $3.9 billion in reserves.

Florida lawmakers and economists, however, haven't provided initial projections on how much state revenue could be lost as the crisis unfolds, even though DeSantis ordered all restaurants to close dining areas two weeks ago while also closing bars and gyms.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, sitting next to President Trump, says his response to the COVID-19 outbreak is based on White House recommendations.

Some major attractions including Walt Disney World and other theme parks voluntarily closed their doors at least two weeks ago along with other businesses.

DeSantis has previously strongly urged senior citizens and people with underlying compromised immune systems to remain at home and adopted White House recommendations including those for social distancing.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis asked DeSantis to have the state's revenue estimating conference begin meeting to project the impact of the pandemic on incoming state revenues.

"It is my belief that you should move to convene that body in order to assess the economic realities of the COVID-19 virus and associated response effort," said a March 20 letter to DeSantis from Patronis, who was a member of the House of Representatives from 2006 to 2014.

As a lawmaker during the financial crisis, Patronis said he is familiar with the "difficult choices" that must be made if there are unexpected revenue shortfalls.

"The financial projections for our state have dramatically changed from what they were at the beginning of the FY 2021 budget making process," he wrote. "Our current year budget, 2019-2020, is also likely to be affected by the mass shutdown and closures forced by COVID-19."

The last REC meeting for state general revenues was in mid-January, and that is the forecast the Legislature used to develop the fiscal 2021 spending plan.

"We are at war in many ways with an unseen enemy, and a time of war is a time of uncertainty," Patronis said in a release to Floridians March 26.

Patronis said the state's revenue forecasters should work quickly to make new projections and to assess Florida’s triple-A bond ratings "as it could be affected by spending from the rainy-day fund or the assumption of more state debt — either of which could be an option for COVID-19 spending."

So far, DeSantis has mostly concentrated on actions related to the virus, and expanding testing amid shortages of materials that have has led to spotty statewide testing.

DeSantis declared a public health emergency on March 1, and a statewide emergency on March 9. He requested a major disaster declaration from Trump on March 22, saying that Florida "has currently allocated all available resources to the effort to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic...while experiencing significant impact to the economy."

DeSantis told Trump that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, people 65 and older "make up roughly 20.5% of Florida's population" and that the "elderly population is expected to grow, more so than any other age demographic."

Florida's population has the third-highest percentage of adults — 46.5% —at risk of serious illness if infected with the coronavirus, according to a March 17 Kaiser Family Foundation report. Only West Virginia and Maine were higher.

When DeSantis requested the federal major disaster declaration more than $208.7 million had been spent on services, materials and supplies responding to the crisis, he told Trump, who approved the disaster declaration on March 25, making the state, tribes and local governments eligible for federal funding and crisis counseling, a move that could ease pressures on the state budget.

Florida, like all states and territories, will also benefit from provisions in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, signed into law by Trump March 27.

Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit government watchdog, estimates that the Sunshine State will be allocated about $8.3 billion. Of that, the state should get $4.6 billion and local governments will receive up to $3.7 billion.

The new federal funding can only be used for “necessary expenditures" incurred due to the COVID-19 public health emergency between March 1 and December 30 of this year. The money can't be used for expenses in the most recently approved budget, TaxWatch said.

Despite the potential economic blowback, some cities and counties have issued their own stay-at-home orders, although some have said the patchwork of actions won’t protect the entire state as residents travel from one area of the state to another.

When DeSantis asked Trump for a major disaster declaration on March 22, the state's limited testing showed more than 1,400 people infected, and 17 people had died.

As of midday Wednesday, state health officials reported 6,955 positive cases of COVID-19, in all but 12 of Florida’s 67 counties, and 87 deaths.

So far, DeSantis has taken limited statewide actions to deal with the virus' spread but Monday he codified in an executive order actions already taken by leaders of the state's hardest hit counties — Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Monroe County (which includes the Florida Keys) — to restrict public access to non-essential businesses and facilities.

Those counties, where Fort Lauderdale and Miami are home to large cruise ship ports and major airports - reported a combined 4,028 positive cases and 35 deaths on Wednesday.

The number of positive cases indicate that the statewide numbers are doubling about every three days.

Miami Beach was closed to spring breakers in mid-March by a local order amid the COVID-19 outbreak; elsewhere in the state beaches remained open and sparked a lawsuit.

DeSantis' stay-at-home order will take effect Friday just after midnight. It came amid multiple calls for DeSantis to shut down the state, despite his reservation about causing economic problems in areas where the disease isn’t as widespread yet.

Members of Florida’s Democratic congressional delegation twice urged the governor to do it, while nearly 400,000 people signed a petition on change.org that says, "Florida Governor Ron Desantis our family [is at] risk, please SHUT DOWN Florida."

One resident sought a court order to require the governor to use his emergency powers to close the state's beaches and issue a "temporary safer-at-home order."

At an emergency press briefing on Tuesday, DeSantis said the state has screened about 8,600 people coming into the state by vehicle and plane from "hot zones" around the country such as the Tri-state area in the northeast, ordering them to self-isolate.

DeSantis also said he intends to continue following the guidance of the president, and that the president’s task force has not recommended that Florida order people to stay home statewide.

"I think no matter what you do, you're going to have a class of folks who just do whatever the hell they want to," DeSantis said in response to a question about people ignoring the state's orders not to congregate in groups of more than 10. "People should just chill out and stay around the house as much as they can."

The story was updated to reflect the stay-at-home order Gov. DeSantis issued Wednesday afternoon.

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