By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Northwest Florida lawmakers Thursday promoted a $315 million proposal that would make loans available to local governments still reeling from Hurricane Michael and would set up a task force to determine additional state assistance for the storm-battered region.
The wide-ranging Senate bill (SB 1610) comes after numerous other proposals have been filed in the House and Senate to provide relief following the deadly Oct. 10 storm that left a path of devastation after making landfall in Mexico Beach and roaring north into Georgia.
Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who represents some of the hardest-hit areas, said the intent is to make sure the region is “not forgotten.” So far, about $1.2 billion has been spent by the state to help with cleanup efforts, and local communities have burned through their budgets.
“The people of North Florida are self-sufficient, they’re independent, but there comes a time when government, rightfully so, should step in and help those who work hard,” Montford said.
Rep. Jay Trumbull, a Panama City Republican who has filed about 70 bills seeking more than $600 million for the region’s recovery, said the Senate bill is a “starting point” for a relief package, with state aid able to be provided faster than federal assistance. Still, with the legislative session in the third day of its scheduled 60-day session, he said lawmakers have time to get it right.
“This is something that we’re going to want to take a lot of time on, and focus a lot of effort, and make sure we have as much community involvement and input as we possibly can,” Trumbull said.
Neither Montford nor Trumbull on Thursday could put an overall price tag on the storm.
“FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) doesn’t know that number yet,” Trumbull said. “Panama City is a prime example on debris removal. They’re not sure exactly what it’s going to cost. They have an idea that it’s about $75-ish million, but it could be $80 (million.) It could be less than that. … A lot of people haven’t sent in bills yet.”
House members from the Panhandle have filed nearly $1 billion in requests for the storm.
“It’s hard to put a number on what we’ve got,” Montford said. “But what we do know is there is commitment from all of Florida, from the Senate anyway, a total commitment to do what is necessary from a budget standpoint.”
On Tuesday, the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee backed a separate proposal (SB 376) by Montford that would allocate $50 million a year for storm recovery efforts from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. That trust funds handles money from a 2014 constitutional amendment that designated a portion of revenue from a real estate documentary-stamp tax to go to land and water projects.
The Senate proposal highlighted Thursday would set aside $300 million for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to set up the Public Facilities Hurricane Restoration Cash Flow Loan Program for eligible counties, cities and school boards.
Noting that Bay County has lost 5,000 of its 28,000 students, a goal of the proposal is to make sure school districts see “minimal” impacts, said Montford, who also is chief executive of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.
Montford is sponsoring the bill with Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, and Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze. Gainer said Senate leaders are behind the effort.
“We’ve been assured that if we can come up with a good pathway for recovery, that it’s going to happen,” Gainer said.
“We never had another storm where it took every other house, where it took 90 percent of the pine trees,” Gainer said. “We’ve seen 300-year-old trees from the bottom up. We go to work, we go home, and we’re reminded every day of how terrible the storm has been.”
Another part of the Senate proposal would set aside $15 million for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to help provide loans to the timber industry, which accounted for about $1.3 billion of the $1.5 billion in agricultural damages from the storm.
The bill also would establish a Hurricane Housing Recovery Program for local governments, similar to the state Housing Initiatives Partnership Program. Also, it would establish a task force under the direction of the Division of Emergency Management that would have until Dec. 15 to determine what additional relief is required for the region.