Governor nixes $500k airport feasibility study

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A new Gulf County airport failed to get the kick-start local officials were hoping for, after Gov. Ron DeSantis last month vetoed a $500,000 earmark that would have funded a feasibility study of the proposed location.

The proposed airport project, recommended by State Rep. Jason Shoaf, would have examined what it might take to put in a small airport on land owned by the St. Joe Company, north of Port St. Joe, just off from the White City Bridge.

“We’re talking about a nice airport capable of handling small private jets, not passenger traffic,” said Jim McKnight, director of the Gulf County Economic Development Coalition. “Usually when you do a project of that size that’s the first thing you do (a feasibility study). It would be done to take a look at whether it would meet FAA standards, how to make it work and whether it was needed.

“There’s a lot of work to be done to lay out an airport where it’s never been done before, where you have property and whether you can get in and out of it,” he said. “There’s a lot to it.”

TaxWatch, Florida’s influential, independent nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog, had opposed the project because it was among 65 Local Transportation Projects put in by legislators outside of the Florida Department of Transportation Work Program.

While this represents fewer projects than last year, the $89.5 million total was $8.2 million more than a year ago.

“The Work Program is developed jointly each year with metropolitan planning organizations, local governments, and the federal government (and) is funded through the State Transportation Trust Fund and spending those limited dollars on other projects can leave approved projects unfunded, negatively impacting… Florida’s coordinated, statewide transportation system,” TaxWatch wrote. “For years, Florida TaxWatch has recommended that the Legislature stop earmarking these projects to allow the process to decide which projects have the highest return on investment and to ensure they are considered within the state’s coordinated transportation planning process.”

While the Legislature created the Economic Development Transportation Projects program to give lawmakers some discretion to add projects that promote economic development and increase jobs, TaxWatch said FDOT, with input from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Enterprise Florida are supposed to review the projects and give final approval.

“Florida law contains requirements and criteria for evaluation; however, this fund simply became a way to get local projects in the budget,” reads the TaxWatch report.

McKnight said the county will now look for other sources of funding, in the event there continues to be no state monies available.

“I am sure it will come back up next year,” he said. “It doesn’t mean he (DeSantis) is against the project, but in a budget year you have to decide what to spend it on, and what was most on his priority list.

“Governors line-item things out they really are for, but in a year when finances are uncertain, you have to choose your priorities,” McKnight said. "(Environmental) issues are high on the list, we were a victim of that.”

He said overall the state budget was favorable to Gulf County, with spending on other infrastructure projects championed in Tallahassee by Shoaf and State Sen. Loranne Ausley.

“They mothballed the work camp, which is a win,” McKnight said, noting that a complete closure would likely have signaled the item of the facility.

“If you mothball something there might be a chance to come back in between financial years,” he said. “And they agreed to give us (municipal work crews) some inmates out of the prison. We’re able to get some (although) we’re not getting the same number we got.”

McKnight said that while the state did not fund renovations of the annex, they didn’t close it or the main prison. He said it is likely work camp employees will be moved into jobs at the main prison.

DeSantis used his line-item veto power to slash $1.5 billion as he signed a record $100 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year last month.

He described the spending plan as reflecting “a state government that is meeting the core concerns of Floridians,” during a bill-signing ceremony at The Garlic restaurant in New Smyrna Beach.

“We will be signing a budget that responsibly supports our men and women in law enforcement, our K-through-12 education students and teachers, conserves and protects our great environmental and natural resources throughout the state of Florida, but does so in a way that has the lowest per-capita tax burden of any state in the country,” DeSantis said. “If you would have said that a year ago, no one would have believed that that would have been possible.”

DeSantis vetoed about 150-line items pitched by individual lawmakers out of about 700 included in the budget. But the vast majority of money vetoed was $1 billion in federal dollars that would have gone to a new emergency fund in the governor’s office. 

The money for the fund would have come from the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal stimulus law signed in March by President Joe Biden. But DeSantis said federal guidelines dictated the money couldn’t be set aside to address future needs and could only be approved through “normal procurement,” defeating the purpose of the requested emergency-preparedness and response fund. 

“If we were to go forward with it, we were going to run into (the) risk of having the feds come after us for it,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis added that the veto ensures the federal money is available for other uses approved by the Legislature. Among other things, the Republican-controlled Legislature tapped federal money to provide $1,000 bonuses to first responders.

State Senate Democrats were quick to note the American Rescue Plan Act, which funneled billions of dollars to the state and bolstered the budget, was approved by congressional Democrats and Biden.

“A big chunk of the $10 billion from the federal stimulus act added to a bounty of transportation and economic development projects all over the state,” Senate Democrats said in a statement. “The money even allowed the governor to dole out $1,000 bonuses to law enforcement, firefighters, and other front-line emergency workers. Unfortunately, as he took his victory lap to hand out the bonuses and brag about the many programs rescued as a result of the federal help, the governor never once directed thanks to those who made this possible.”

The progressive group Florida Watch called the spending plan a “missed opportunity” to help more than just teachers and first responders with $1,000 bonuses as a reward for work during the pandemic. 

“While children throughout our state are crammed into crumbling classrooms and portables, Republicans in Tallahassee refused to spend more than $3 billion that could have been used on much-needed maintenance projects in public schools,” Florida Watch Executive Director Josh Weierbach said in a statement. “Instead, they raised taxes on every Floridian by $1 billion a year. They also turned away billions of dollars by refusing to become the 39th state to expand Medicaid, which would lower the cost of care for all Floridians and extend access to quality and affordable health care to over 800,000 workers.”

In April, DeSantis signed into law a plan to require out-of-state online retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases made by Floridians, with the estimated $1 billion a year in revenue going to curb a pair of taxes on Florida businesses (SB 50).

The veto total announced Wednesday topped the $1 billion that DeSantis cut last year and the $131 million in cuts in 2019. DeSantis wielded his veto pen last year to help shore up the budget during uncertainty about how the pandemic would affect state tax revenues.

DeSantis used Wednesday’s event at the upscale Volusia County restaurant to highlight his efforts to reopen the economy last year.

“We were the state lifting people up. That was good for Floridians, but we were also the landing spot for a lot of people that wanted to escape the insanity and come and get their mental, you know, get recharged from escaping these lockdowns,” DeSantis said. 

The budget will take effect July 1 and, in part, funds the Department of Transportation’s $9.44 billion work program; provides $75 million for the Visit Florida tourism-marketing agency; provides $74 million for the Job Growth Grant Fund economic-development program; and raises to $13 an hour the minimum pay of state workers. 

DeSantis approved $22.8 billion in spending for public schools, which includes a roughly $464 million “safety net” to help school districts deal with potentially high enrollment counts. 

The state is expecting 2.86 million students to enroll in public schools next academic year, after education officials and lawmakers grappled with enrollment declines during the pandemic. But it is still unknown if previously “missing” students might return to public schools, potentially pushing enrollment beyond the state’s projection.

DeSantis also highlighted $550 million in the budget to continue increasing teacher salaries. That is in addition to one-time $1,000 bonuses for teachers and principals funded with the federal money.

For the environment, the budget includes $102 million for the Florida Forever land-conservation program and $300 million to acquire land to protect wildlife corridors. It also includes $415 million for Everglades restoration; $50 million for state parks; $500 million to address effects of rising sea levels; $500 million for wastewater grants; and $100 million to clean up an old phosphate plant in Manatee County that sparked concerns this year about a potential environmental catastrophe. 

DeSantis already had approved a $169 million tax-relief package that includes three sales-tax holidays. That includes a 10-day disaster preparedness period that started Friday and allows shoppers to avoid paying sales taxes when buying hurricane supplies. The state also will hold a tax-holiday period in August for back-to-school shoppers and a “freedom week” holiday period in July for outdoor and entertainment purchases.

--- News Service of Florida staff writers Jim Turner and Ryan Dailey contributed to this report.

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