By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — As calls from hurricane-battered Northwest Florida grow more desperate for state and federal financial help, Sen. Bill Montford on Tuesday removed a request for $315 million from a relief package while lawmakers prepare for budget talks.
Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who is one of three Northwest Florida lawmakers behind the proposal (SB 1610), said removing the dollar figure will keep the bill moving. The $315 million amount was more than the House or Senate included in their budget proposals for Hurricane Michael relief, though negotiations on a final spending plan are expected to start next week.
“I’m very hopeful that we will get the $315 million and maybe more, that’s the negotiation process,” Montford said after his amended bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee.
The panel also backed a separate measure (SB 1162) that would designate to inland Panhandle communities 5 percent of the annual payments the state receives in a settlement with BP over impacts from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The bills were approved as lawmakers face increased pressure to provide assistance to Northwest Florida communities that were devastated when the Category 4 Hurricane Michael barreled through the region Oct. 10.
A disaster-relief rally is planned Wednesday at the Capitol, and Bay County school district officials last week expressed growing frustration as the wait continues for state and federal assistance beyond initial rescue aid and debris removal.
“With the bleak hope of Congress doing more, I have become disheartened at the lack of progress from our state Capitol,” Bay County Superintendent of Schools Bill Husfelt said during a press conference Thursday.
Husfelt noted that since Oct. 9, the day before Michael made landfall, the district has lost 3,376 students and 228 employees. In February, the district shuttered three schools due to lower enrollment. And the district is looking at a budget that needs about $220 million to repair damaged schools and already faces a $37.2 million shortfall. Without assistance to cover operational costs, up to 600 employees could face layoffs, Husfelt said.
“Unfortunately, there is no appetite in Tallahassee or in D.C. to do anything more to help us,” Husfelt continued. “No more headlines and very little chance for most of our needs to be met. The line being used in the state is they’ve spent $1.8 billion (to help after the storm). That’s true. But in reality, about 87.5 percent will come back from FEMA.”
Husfelt said local officials expected state lawmakers to take up hurricane relief immediately after the legislative session began last month and then after a measure on medical marijuana was fast-tracked. On the federal front, he said Congress in 2016 had a $15 billion disaster-relief package on the president’s desk just two weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas.
Bay County School Board Chairman Steve Moss said the district has cut costs and become more efficient, but believes geography is against it.
“I honestly think if we lived in Miami-Dade, Broward or Palm Beach County, I think we’d have the funds we need,” Moss said. “But we’re not. We’re in a relatively rural part of the state and maybe not as affluent as some of those communities.”
The House and Senate budgets would direct about $225 million for additional disaster aid next fiscal year. Included in the House’s $89.9 billion package is $123.6 million for affordable housing. The Senate’s $90.3 billion budget proposal includes $100 million for housing.
The disaster-relief bill approved Tuesday after removing the $315 million is sponsored by Montford, Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, and Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze. It seeks an agricultural loan program under the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services; creation of a task force to review and make recommendations on changes to local, state and federal disaster response and recovery; creating a program within the Florida Housing Finance Corp. to respond to housing needs after hurricanes; and directing the Florida Building Commission to make recommendations on building-code changes due to Michael.
Rep. Jay Trumbull, a Panama City Republican who has filed about 70 bills seeking more than $600 million for the region’s recovery, pleaded for continued assistance during a speech on the House floor last Wednesday, the six-month anniversary of the storm.
“I rise to plead for the deep and continued support of this body as we try to survive back home. If we can survive, we can thrive,” Trumbull said. “But we have used all the local and personal resources we have and as you may be aware, Congress has yet to provide any local relief or any relief to my community despite multiple attempts to pass legislation that would give us relief.”
A day later, House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, didn’t give a firm commitment about increasing the state’s contribution when asked about the lack of federal funding.
Husfelt would also like to see lawmakers support a Montford proposal (SB 520) that would help school districts most impacted by Hurricane Michael by providing a special one-time funding allocation that would help cover enrollment losses after the storm. The bill has only cleared a single Senate committee and doesn’t have a House version.