TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has been highly critical of the federal response to the outbreak of the Zika virus, used his emergency powers Thursday to direct $25 million in state money toward helping to develop a vaccine.
It marks the third time this year that Scott has ordered the state to spend money fighting Zika. Until now, however, the state's efforts had been aimed at killing mosquitoes, training mosquito technicians and purchasing Zika prevention kits. The governor's move is highly unusual since he's dipping into the state's rainy-day fund to pay for research efforts as opposed to paying for costs directly attributable to a natural disaster or emergency.
President Barack Obama earlier this year asked Congress to set aside $1.9 billion to combat Zika, which can cause severe birth defects and other problems. But Congress has been mired in a months-long debate over elements contained in the legislation, including whether Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico could have access to the money.
"Every minute that passes that Congress doesn't approve funding means more time is lost from researching this virus," Scott said in a statement. "For the sake of our state's future children, this is time we cannot afford to waste."
Hundreds of people in Florida have become infected with the virus. Most who have the virus caught it while traveling, but 92 cases have not been travel related. The Zika outbreak has led local officials to ramp up efforts to kill mosquitoes that transmit the virus including the controversial use of aerial spraying in Miami Beach.
Florida has now set aside more than $61 million to battle the virus. Scott said the funding he announced Thursday will be spent exclusively on Zika research, including speeding up the creation of a vaccine and developing new Zika testing methods. The Florida Department of Health will be ordered to draw up a grant program for universities and others interested in doing the research.
Scott's move came the same day that he penned a caustic op-ed in USA Today where he called the federal government "incompetent" and said it would "be nice" if President Obama "stopped taking vacations and focused all his energy on this."
But while Scott continues to bemoan a lack of federal money to fight Zika, he has come under fire from Democrats for some of his own decisions.
When he first took office, Scott pushed for deep budget cuts across state government. A state run mosquito lab in Panama City had been targeted for closing due to budget shortfalls, but the Legislature in 2011 agreed to set aside $500,000 to as part of an effort to keep the lab open. Scott, however, vetoed the money and the lab wound up closing.
"It pretty much slammed the door shut," said John Smith, an entomologist who now works for Florida State University and had been director of the mosquito lab for 20 years. The lab tested ways to kill off mosquitoes, including alternative methods that did not rely on pesticides.
Adding a bit of sting to it was that Smith said he personally greeted Scott while he was campaigning for governor and asked him to spare the mosquito lab if he got elected.
"He was shaking my hand, I think at this point he was telling me what I wanted to hear," Smith said.