Florida Panel OKs Hurricane Recovery Bills, Including One Without a Price Tag

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A key Senate panel on Monday approved two bills that would commit the state to funneling emergency assistance money into the 13-county Panhandle area reeling from Hurricane Michael’s devastation.

One of the bills, however, comes without a price tag, a reflection of the state’s angst in putting together a recovery plan without any idea when – or if – Congress will approve a pending $13.5 billion package that includes assistance to Florida Michael victims.

The Senate Transportation, Tourism & Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee unanimously advanced Senate Bills 1610 and 1162 to final hearings in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee before advancing to the Senate floor.

SB 1610, co-sponsored by Sens. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, George Gainer, R-Panama City, and Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, would allocate $315 million in "rainy day" funds to make loans available to local governments and create a regional task force to assess recovery needs.

SB 1610 would create the loan program for local governments and school boards to repair damage and for local agencies to meet affordable housing needs.

Prior to submitting the bill, Montford amended it to remove the $315 million amount, preferring to leave it blank as the Senate and House negotiate on the state’s fiscal year 2020 budget.

"I’m very hopeful that we will get the $315 million and maybe more, that’s the negotiation process," Montford said.

The Senate proposal to use reserve money for emergency assistance does not appear to have the same traction in the House. A companion bill has not surfaced in the lower chamber, although dozens of recovery-related proposals are circulating about committee review.

There is some indication that if adopted by the full Senate, SB 1610 could serve as an omnibus bill to carry the Legislature’s consolidated response to the emergency.

Also approved unanimously by the panel was SB 1162, a committee bill carried by Gainer that would allocate 5 percent of the annual $106.7 million a year – about $5.3 million – that Florida receives in payments from BP through 2033 as part of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement.

The measure would direct the state Department of Economic Opportunity to designate a priority list of recovery infrastructure projects, workforce initiatives and other programs in Calhoun, Gadsden, Holmes, Jackson, Jefferson, Liberty and Washington counties.

Florida has spent $1.2 billion – and counting – to help with recovery, an effort that could cost nearly $3 billion in the state’s fiscal year 2020 budget.

But the Senate’s proposed $90.3 billion budget calls for a $1.8 billion hurricane recovery allocation – including $1.2 billion that already has been spent – and relies on eventual reimbursement through the stalled Congressional emergency aid bill.

The House’s proposed $89.9 billion budget earmarks less specifically for hurricane recovery although, like the Senate plan, is a work-in-progress with dozens of bills, many filed as project proposals, working through committees.

"I wish we could do something today and say we are going to allocate the money right now," said Sen. Victor Torres, D-Kissimmee. "People are in deep need."

"If I sound desperate, I am," Montford told the panel. "We are all Floridians. We’ve got to do everything we can to help these people."

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