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Floridians stung by DeSantis veto that cost $346 million in energy-saving programs

Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

ORLANDO, Fla. — The 22-year-old air conditioning and heat pump in Daniel Milligan’s Deltona home was on its last legs, and it would cost at least $10,000 to replace, a large sum for a man in his 60s who’d been laid off and was getting by on temp work.

He’d heard about a new $8.5 billion federal rebate program targeting lower- and moderate-income homeowners and was eager to apply to the program to help pay for the upgrades that would help lower his electric bills.

But when he contacted the Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Department to see if it was participating in the program, the office’s blunt response sent on July 31 surprised him: “On June 15, 2023, Governor DeSantis used his veto power to eliminate nearly $30 million in energy programs,” said an unsigned email from the FDACS Office of Energy.

With a stroke of the pen, DeSantis had wiped out the seed money needed for Florida to get what would have been $346 million from Washington for Milligan’s heat pump and other energy-saving programs, the email said.

“He’s hurting millions of Floridians,” Milligan said, identifying himself as politically independent all of his life.

DeSantis offered no explanation for axing the energy programs in his veto message.

Asked why DeSantis did it, his press secretary, Jeremy Redfern said in an email that that the governor “reviews every bill and appropriation that comes across his desk and uses his authority under the Florida Constitution to veto bills that he believes are bad public policy.”

Five days after DeSantis vetoed the $30 million funding for energy programs that would have administered the federal rebates, the Office of Energy’s director sent letters to the U.S. Department of Energy withdrawing the state’s application to the program.

The U.S. Department of Energy sent out guidelines to state energy offices to set up energy efficiency rebate programs under the Rewiring America program, which is being financed under President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act and the Investment in Jobs Act.

“It gives states enough flexibility to design rebate programs that work for them while putting a priority on serving low- to moderate-income families who often spend the largest portion of their income on energy costs,” Rewiring America CEO Ari Matusiak said in a news release.

He said it was aimed at the households that are often hardest to keep comfortable in times of extreme temperatures, adding that the program would create 50,000 jobs.

It’s not the first time DeSantis has vetoed a budget item that would have helped reduce the use of gas or cut energy costs. He vetoed SB 284, a popular, bipartisan bill that would have allowed state agencies to increase the number of electric vehicles in their fleets, a measure that could have potentially saved the state $277 million.

It’s also not the first time DeSantis cut a program supported by Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson. He vetoed a $100 million land to buy rural conservation easements from Florida farmers, which perplexed agricultural leaders across the state.

“There is no conceivable reason to target agriculture in a year when we have billions of dollars in reserves,” Simpson said at the time. “Agriculture was harmed today and so was the state of Florida.”

Cutting down energy costs is a top priority for her constituents, said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando. She and other members of the climate and energy legislative caucus recently met with U.S. Department of Energy officials to discuss other means of getting that money to Florida residents, but it doesn’t seem possible under the law.

“This is just another example of DeSantis choosing political ambition over the people of Florida,” Eskamani said. “It is not only foolish but it costs people money, especially now with the heat and peak energy usage.”

The U.S. DOE deadline for states to tap into those rebate funds is Jan. 31, 2025, said Ellen Qualls, a spokeswoman for the rebate program. So the Legislature could potentially reappropriate that seed money next session and reapply for the grants.

Milligan was equally perplexed about DeSantis turning down the $350 million. He compared it to former Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to pass on $1 billion from President Obama to build a high-speed rail from Orlando to Tampa. That money went to California and North Carolina instead.

“We should get a return on our tax dollars. This angers me a lot,” Milligan said. “DeSantis cut us off at the knees.”

Allison Rice was looking forward to using that program to help finance upgrades to her 52-year-old Winter Park home. She discovered the electrical wiring is outdated, so she’s been holding off on getting a new air conditioner, hot water heater, and new electrical wiring.

“I pretty much need everything that’s offered on this list,” Rice said.

The program would help preserve other older housing stock like hers, which would help maintain affordable housing, she said.

”We need to invest money in the existing neighborhoods like Azalea Park and Pine Hills,” Rice said, “not build new ones.”