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Florida lawmakers backed measure for hurricane aid


House members took the first step in restocking a pool of money that Gov. Ron DeSantis can distribute in emergencies.

The House Appropriations Committee unanimously backed a measure (HB 1B) that would add $650 million to the state Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund, while Democrats urged adding accountability guidelines to the bill.

Bill sponsor Mike Giallombardo, R-Cape Coral, said the additional money is needed as the state continues to address the impacts of Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole. Costs have included such things as debris removal and repairing two bridges vital to Southwest Florida.

“What’s the purpose of government? Safety and security. And this bill achieves that,” Giallombardo said. “It allows for the governor’s office … to use those funds to be able to support local governments and communities when a disaster happens. Period. Without the red tape.”

The full House is expected to take up the measure on Thursday as part of a special legislative session that started yesterday.

Before the committee meeting, Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami, said the proposal should include more “clarity” on how the money would be spent in the future.

“What we are seeing with most of our Republican colleagues is that they don't really care about accountability,” Joseph said. “They want to give the governor carte blanche to do whatever it is that he wants to do, regardless of legality, constitutionality or otherwise.”

The fund is down to about $420 million, and the state Division of Emergency Management estimates expenditures related to Ian and Nicole are expected to reach $2 billion. In addition to state money, Florida is seeking reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to a House staff analysis. The Category 4 Ian made landfall in September in Southwest Florida, while the Category 1 Nicole hit the East Coast in November.

The state fund was established last year with $500 million, drawing money from general revenue. Weeks after Ian hit, the Joint Legislative Budget Commission, which is made up of House and Senate budget leaders and meets periodically, held an emergency meeting to add $360 million to the fund.

To further assist communities affected by the hurricanes, the bill would create a $50 million Local Government Emergency Bridge Loan Program within the Department of Economic Opportunity.

Chris Holley, interim manager of Fort Myers Beach, said with 97 percent of the structures in his town damaged or destroyed by Ian, the city anticipates all revenue sources will dramatically be impacted.

“There’s a lot of cash flow issues happening in our town right now,” Holley said. “And this will help us kind of get to the end of the tunnel and hope it’s not going to be a train coming down the tracks.”

An identical proposal (SB 2-B) is expected to go before the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee today.

Jim Turner is a reporter for the News Service of Florida.
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