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Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried urges Florida to speed up distribution of federal COVID relief dollars

'That money is available now,' commissioner says
Posted at 7:34 PM, Sep 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-16 10:58:12-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — Florida still has billions in unspent federal pandemic relief.

Critics attacked the governor Wednesday for a slow rollout asking, what's the holdup?

Florida's Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is also eyeing the governor's office in 2022, blasted Gov. Ron DeSantis during a virtual roundtable, saying his administration hasn't done enough to spend the pile money.

"That money is available now," Fried said. "At every turn, Gov. DeSantis chooses to stand in the way of the help that the federal government is trying to provide to Florida families."

Florida has about $10 billion remaining from its allotment of the Education Stabilization Fund. Nearly $727 million remains on hand for housing aid.

The state also would have had $820 million to feed school kids via the Pandemic EBT program but failed to apply, federal officials said. It's the only state that didn't, leaving hunger-relief advocates frustrated.

"Families were struggling before the pandemic, and they're still struggling today," said Kim Johnson, Florida Impact to End Hunger CEO. "We all know how this funding could definitely help our families."

Kim Johnson, Florida Impact to End Hunger CEO
Kim Johnson speaks about the need for the federal funds to be distributed to struggling families.

DeSantis has often touted fiscal responsibility when it comes to pandemic spending. And his communications team defended his actions in a statement.

Press Secretary Christina Pushaw said the P-EBT program was created to help feed children while schools were closed.

"As we continue to support families and students with in-person education, Florida's public schools have resumed normal operations and schools are open in every county in our state," Pushaw said. "Therefore, students receive high-quality nutrition directly from our schools."

Pushaw also called Fried's accusations "baseless" and said Florida is one of the top spenders of COVID-19 relief dollars for education.

Federal data backs up that statement.

The latest info shows 21 percent of the state's more than $13 billion education pot is gone. Florida is ninth in the nation, spending more of its funds than even New York or California.

The state wasn't doing as well with federal rental aid.

The OUR Florida distribution program has handed out just 16 percent of its nearly $870 million to date. That's a bump from 2 percent in July, but bigger states, like Texas, have already handed out 65 percent.

"The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) continues to work to raise awareness for relief available to renters in Florida who are behind on rent and utilities payments while helping them get back on the road to economic self-sufficiency through the OUR Florida program," said DCF Communications Director Mallory McManus. "In recent months, DCF has worked to ease the application process while adjusting to the changing guidance from the U.S. Treasury to ensure that families who need this assistance can get it as quickly as possible."

Fried urged Floridians to call and write the governor to speed up the rollout. Time will tell if that happens.

Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering