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DeSantis: We need to get help to Florida small businesses, ferret out ‘bad actors’

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks Tuesday, May 5, 2020, during a coronavirus news conference in Sarasota, Fla. Chris O'Meara / AP

By John Haughey | The Center Square

    Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday that Florida will “find a way” to get COVID-19 relief money to small businesses without it being gobbled up first by “bad actors.”

The governor said corporations cleaned out two rounds of federal Paycheck Protection Program assistance before small businesses could get to the table.

“There definitely have been some bad actors, companies that got millions and millions of dollars,” DeSantis said. “Some of the bigger companies are getting money, and small businesses are not getting anything.”

Congress has passed two PPP assistance packages. The first round ran through $349 billion in 13 days, and the second round provided $310 billion.

The second round of PPP excluded publicly traded companies from applying, after corporate restaurant chains and retailers, among other large companies, were awarded loans in the first round.

The U.S. Treasury on April 23 demanded that publicly traded companies return their loans by May 7.

Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, which got $20 million by applying on behalf of two subsidiaries, and Potbelly Sandwich Shop, which got $10 million, are among those that have announced they’ll return their loans.

small business advocacy organization and consumer rights group are among those with websites tracking PPP loans.

“For some (corporations), you really should return that and let the small businesses have it,” DeSantis said. “There are some businesses that took it and didn’t even close the whole time. It’s just not fair.”

The governor said he is looking at boosting state assistance “potentially using other state programs, keyed to mom-and-pop businesses.”

“We got to do that,” he said. “We need to get (assistance) into the hands of the small business folks.”

Florida’s $50 million Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan program, unveiled March 17, also ran out of money quickly.

According to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), only 945 – or 3 percent – of 38,000 applications for the one-year, no-interest $50,000 emergency loans were approved, with about 815 separate business owners receiving loans and 60 securing multiple loans.

“We’re actively looking to see (what Florida small businesses) have not received any type of assistance,” DeSantis said. “If they don’t remain solvent, they could go out of business.”

DeSantis called Monday for the state’s inspector general to investigate the 2011 $40 million contract with DeLoitte Consulting to build the CONNECT unemployment website that cost $77 million to launch in 2013.

“This is a system the state paid, again I wasn’t here for this, but they paid $77 million for. We brought in engineers and they say it was very flawed and not worth the money,” he said.

DeSantis said during Friday news conferences in Jacksonville and West Palm Beach there is no timeframe for “getting to the bottom of it.”

“How long it will take? I don’t know,” he said. “Our focus is getting the checks out. I imagine, when the dust settles, we will be able to get some answers.”

Meanwhile, DeSantis said, payments to the state’s jobless are being processed, with more than $1 billion paid since March 15, noting 150,000 checks were sent out Thursday alone.

DeSantis said many Floridians don’t qualify for state unemployment but qualify for federal pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA) authorized under the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“The federal government just sent us the money” for PUA payments, he said.

DEO’s Reemployment Assistance Claims dashboard reported Friday evening that 829,771 of 1.239 million – or 67 percent – “confirmed unique” claims had been filed since March 15, with 494,944 – or 40 percent – having been paid, totaling $1.184 billion.

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