• Lakey Love

Florida Billionaires Gain $28 Billion During Pandemic While Over 900,000 Floridians Go Uninsured

by Lakey Love, February 16, 2021 Recent report shows Florida bllionaires wealth gain since the start of the pandemic could cover the state's $3.3 billion budget shortfall and shore up healthcare inequities. Activists call on state legislators and Senators Rubio and Scott to accept federal Medicaid expansion dollars and President Biden's relief package and put an end to Florida's regressive tax structure and tax the rich to help balance the budget.

Activists from the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, Florida's Black Women's Round Table, join Florida Senator Loranne Ausley and Gadsden County Commission Chair Brenda Holt to announce the release of a report by Americans for Tax Fairness (ATF) and Health Care for America NOW (HCAN) that shows that the collective wealth of Florida’s 59 billionaires jumped by $28.4 billion, or 15.5%, between mid-March of last year and Jan. 29 of this year. The $28 billion in pandemic profits of the state’s richest residents could cover the state’s $3 billion budget gap many times over and still leave them as wealthy as they were when the pandemic hit 10 months ago.

Secretary of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans Barbara DeVane argued, "These billionaires have raised a lot of money, increasing their own wealth during the pandemic and health crisis in Florida. There is no reason, no excuse, for anyone in Florida to be without healthcare. Especially in this time of health crisis. Unfortunately, Governor DeSantis and the Florida Republicans continue to carry on a partisan war against Medicaid expansion, and other aid packages, without regard for the welfare of close to 1 million (uninsured) residents of Florida."

According to the AFT and HCAN report, the private gain of Florida billionaires contrasts sharply with the health and economic struggles that average Floridians are facing. In the same months that billionaires profited over $28 billion some 1.7 million state residents fell ill with the coronavirus, roughly 26,000 died from it and 4.3 million lost jobs in the accompanying recession. Officials are warning that the state’s budget shortfall will lead to more job cuts and less money for education, healthcare, transportation and other services while people continue to lose jobs, small business close, and the poor grow even poorer.

Florida Senator Loranne Ausley spoke up on the issue, demanding accountability from Republican lawmakers who are currently blocking legislation in Florida that could provide answers for the thousands of poverty impacted families in the eleven, mostly rural, counties she represents in North Florida. "People are hurting" she exclaimed, "Food distribution, food insecurity, is way up and every food bank partner that we talk to says that they have seen people they have never before been in this position lining up just to feed their families. We are two weeks out from legislative session. We need to be focused on getting to the other side of this pandemic, on supporting our public health system, on equitable distribution of our vaccine. We need solutions to the real challenges that people are facing."

Part of the relief is focused on Florida finally accepting Medicaid expansion dollars from the federal government. Florida, one of only 12 states in the nation that is still not accepting Medicaid expansion dollars, has the fourth highest number of uninsured adults in the country. Ausley argued, "The Democrats stood up and called again for Medicaid expansion last week. Its a no brainer to me. We are taking billions of federal dollars in every other area. Why are we not expanding Medicaid to cover almost a billion Floridians who are in the middle of a health crisis?"

Good question. Especially considering the numbers of people impacted. Florida Health Justice Project estimates that the number of uninsured has risen in Florida from 900,000 before the pandemic to close to 1.5 million after the pandemic. These numbers will grow as access to affordable healthcare for adults gets farther and farther out of reach due to unemployment and income loss. According to the US Department of Labor, 170,000 Florida residents were collecting unemployment in January. Between March and September 8,663 businesses closed, 5,332 of them permanently. As of Feb.1, 2021, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Prorities, twelve percent of adult state residents were hungry and 21% of households with children faced food insecurity.

While the wealthy white male state senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, line up to oppose President Biden's new $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan, Black and Brown communities across the state suffer even greater threats to health, food and financial security. Leader of the Black Women's Round Table in Florida, Salandra Benton states, "No one knows better than me and the Black and Brown women in our communites. We are the ones most likely to be sick, most likely to be the last one to get the shot. We work in childcare, we work to take care of our families, we work no matter what. Women are directly impacted all around. That is why the Black Women Round Table is adding their voice to this issue. Senator Rubio and Scott need to put aside their partisan issues. This is not a partisan issue when it comes to the pandemic and the sickness of women around the state and the impact of them losing their jobs."

Gadsden County Commission Chair Brenda Holt spoke about the struggles of the rural, mostly Black, community members she represents. She highlighted ongoing issues with broadband access, transportation, and farmers suffering from hardship moving from hurricane recovery directly into a panemic. "We have minority farmers who were already having a hard time, going to get their products to market who need help. Small businesses are backed up out of the store fronts and they are trying to be teachers at the same time and get their children the education they need or get them to a school. We need help desperately. Just like the other rural counties. These rural counties were already hurting. We cannot pave the roads because there is no income for that. The job market is not good. We need help. The funds that were sent before have already run out. We need help with utility bills, and food."

Karen Woodall, Executive Director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy argued that taxing wealth in Florida would be a first step to finding an answer to the state's inequities. "The AFT and HCAN report is not really about billionaires. Its about inequity," she argued. "Those who already had wealth got more, even during this pandemic, while those who were already struggling fell deeper into poverty. Workers who were barely making ends meat lost jobs. Businesses who were struggling closed. So while 59 billionaires did well we look at the ALICE report by the United Way of Florida which shows that fourty-six percent of pre-pandemic households in Florida were struggling to pay their daily bills and many were one or two paychecks away from poverty. All the struggles that were there in 2018 (when the ALICE report was issued) have been magnified by the COVID pandemic. The reality is Florida does not tax wealth, it never has," Ms. Woodall stated. "There is no personal income tax, no estate tax, no corporate income tax on LLCs, etc. Only 1% of the profitable corporations even pay taxes." In contrast she argued, "Florida does require low and moderate income individuals to pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes through sales taxes. More than 2/3 of Florida's state budget is based on sales tax and that is the most regressive tax structure there is."

“Billionaires have been reaping bushels of pandemic profits the last 10 months while many

working families are reeling, state and local services are suffering and jobs are disappearing,” said Frank Clemente, executive director of Americans for Tax Fairness. “Congress needs to come to the immediate rescue to get the country out of this mess. And then it should turn its attention to enacting sweeping reforms that make the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share of taxes so we can create an economy that works for all of us.”

"None of this is new. What is new is an opportunity," Karen Woodall exclaimed in her closing remarks. "We need our representatives and senators in Washington to accept the federal relief that is so need to help Florida. But we also need to keep in mind that while our Florida legislature crafts is pandemic budget that it is critical that they take advantage of all the federal money that is going to come into the state. We need to take a hard look at our tax structure. Not in the usual way where we give more and more tax breaks to corporations. That definitely needs to stop this session. We need to look at ways to modernize the tax structure. Removing outdated exemptions that benefit narrow special interests. Adopting combined reporting which would help small businesses. We need to adopt a remote sales tax as long as it is coupled with the combined reporting issue. We shouldn't ask middle and lower income people to pay more while not asking our corporate partners to step up. These actions would stablize our economy for the future when the pandemic federal dollars are not available. This would give the third largest state in the nation an opportunity focus on equity and fairness for all Floridians."

TAKE ACTION: Send an email to Florida House Speaker and Senate President urging them to prioritize Medicaid expansion, tax reform, and support for Florida's poverty impacted families hit hardest by the pandemic.

Florida Policy Action Network and Florida Policy Watch are projects of the Florida People's Advocacy Center a nonprofit dedicated to amplifying directly impacted voices on policy creation and decisions around the state.

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