Florida and its cities and school districts are urging Washington to give them their share of the massive stimulus package being pushed by President Obama. Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, is joining the president in support of the plan that has been opposed by much of the GOP.
Obama is taking his push for the more than $800 billion stimulus plan to Fort Myers, Fla., on Tuesday. It's a city that last year had the nation's highest foreclosure rate.
He'll be joined by Crist who, facing a $3 billion state budget deficit, has broken with other Republicans to lobby hard for passage of the stimulus proposal. He was one of just four Republican governors to sign a letter urging its passage. Not a single member of the state's GOP delegation to Congress has supported the measure.
None of that bothers Crist. At a jobs center in Orlando on Monday, he said he was looking forward to the president's visit. "This is a time when our country needs all of us to pull together," he said. "We've all heard before that we came here on different ships perhaps, but we're all in the same boat now on this thing. ... It's about jobs, jobs, jobs for Americans and Floridians."
The state had expected more than $13 billion from the House version of the stimulus package. The current Senate version cuts some of the money headed to the states.
Cities Seek To Bypass States
Cities in Florida and across the country are also lobbying for a share of the federal largesse. And they want it sent to them directly, not funneled through state capitals.
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz says, "The state sets priorities ... and quite frankly, [those] generally don't always favor the major urban areas."
Diaz heads the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a group that compiled a national wish list to revitalize the nation's cities. For Miami, Diaz put on the list a $100 million tunnel and a $280 million streetcar system. A new, pared-down list of approved stimulus projects has less vision, but more practicality. It's mostly ball fields, street improvements and a parking garage.
Diaz is also lobbying for an important provision in the stimulus measure. It would allow cities to apply for funds directly without going through the state. "If you have water projects that are ready to go in a 180-day period, then you can go to the front of the line with your project instead of standing in line based on somebody else's determination of need," he says.
Small Communities Scramble For Money
Miami, like many other cities and counties in Florida, has a lobbyist in Washington. With so much money coming available, now even small communities are scrambling to find representation in D.C.
"I kind of liken it to a youth soccer game, a children's soccer game, where everybody's running after the ball," says Paul Vrooman, the mayor of Miami suburb Cutler Bay. "And then the ball gets kicked, and you run over after that person who's got the ball."
Cutler Bay is now looking to hire a lobbying firm in Washington. The town is just 3 years old and needs money to build a police station and to improve its storm water drainage.
The problem is that no one knows yet how the billions of dollars will be allocated. "We're playing it safe, and we're barking up every tree in the forest right now to try to be heard and make sure we're in the right place at the right time when that process lands," Vrooman says.
Joining cities in their lobbying is nearly every other independent government body in Florida: transportation authorities, water districts and perhaps the most insistent group, the schools.
Seeking Money For Schools
The recession has thrown many Florida school districts into crisis. Miami-Dade County, the nation's fourth-largest district, has already cut $300 million from its budget and is still facing a $50 million deficit.
District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho says the House version of the plan would inject more than $350 million of federal aid into Miami's schools. The Senate may cut that. Also on the chopping block is $16 billion in funds for school construction.
With half of the nation's school buildings at least 50 years old, Carvalho says, eliminating money for school construction makes little sense.
"The economic stimulus nature behind that is evident," he says. "Right now, construction companies — private construction companies — are not working. The release of these dollars will allow for these companies to go back to work."
Local education officials are hoping the school construction money and other funding will be restored before there's a final vote. On Monday, they received support from the lobbyist-in-chief. Obama said he would like to see Congress put back some of the money cut from education dollars.