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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is getting his own emergency fund—with limits

tropical hurricane approaching the USA, satellite image.
Mike Mareen
The governor's emergency fund would give him direct access to cash in the event of a disaster, like a hurricane.

An emergency fund worth half-a-billion dollars is almost ready for Governor Ron DeSantis’ use. Legislation creating the “Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund” has been approved by the Florida Legislature.

After the Senate passed the measures last month (SB 96 and 98), the House approved two proposals Thursday to create a $500 million pot of money the governor can quickly access during a declared state of emergency.

Critics questioned the need for the fund. “I try really hard to understand the benefit of the bill, but what I just could not get to was the problem we're trying to solve,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, speaking in final debate on the House floor.

Governor Ron DeSantis pitched the idea last year to help avoid dipping into the state’s general revenue money after a disaster. Eskamani said she’s never heard of funding not being available in such circumstances.

"I do feel like $500 million is just a lot of money to give in a flexible manner to the executive branch," Eskamani said. "Our responsibility as lawmakers is to be involved in those decisions...And so I do worry that when we give up that power, whether it's a Republican or a Democratic governor, that we're not doing our part of that oversight.”

The governor can already tap other sources of money after declaring emergencies. That’s the problem, according to Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach. “A governor can spend until we run out of money. The legislature does not review or approve this spending in advance or after the fact,” Grall said. "If this bill passes, a governor is essentially limited to what is in this fund. That's it. A governor will no longer be able to spend state revenues and reserves without our approval.”

“I don't know that this is the best vehicle—if what we are trying to do is to put guardrails on the governor, I think we should put guardrails on the governor,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa. She said Florida has a history of governors doing the right thing when it comes to emergency spending, so why change the process? “And because there's no limitation on what a governor now or in the future could determine to be an emergency, it gives me some heartburn,” she said.

“I think it’s been called a slush fund, this $500 million," said House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City. "Right now, the governor’s slush fund is the state treasury.” He said hundreds of emergency amendments have been filed over the last four years to cover billions of dollars in spending. This bill, he says, requires approval of such big spending from the Joint Legislative Budget Commission (LBC).

“All we are doing is placing guardrails on the state's dollars, saying that should the governor need to spend any more than $500 million, that he has to come to the LBC to get approval," Trumbull said. "I think that's a reasonable ask compared to spending $5.5 billion over a four-year period.”

A $1 billion emergency fund was originally proposed, but that amount got too much pushback. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dana Trabulsy, R-Fort Pierce, said she thinks Governor Ron DeSantis “has done a fine job” with the money he’s used.

“Through COVID we saw that, but I also think through COVID, that it's made it very clear that we should have more oversight over emergency spending,” Trabulsy said, adding that her bill would make sure the governor is limited to spending only what’s in the new fund.

“If you don't vote on this bill and a state of emergency is declared and he doesn't have those guardrails up, then please do not complain when he raids the trust fund that you worked so hard for, the appropriation that you work so hard for, the dollars for water that you work so hard for, the infrastructure that you work so hard for," Trabulsy said. "Don't complain about that because he's going to have complete and total access to that.”

The Florida Legislature approved a similar emergency fund last year, but it was vetoed by DeSantis because it was to be funded with federal stimulus dollars. Federal guidelines did not allow stimulus funds to be set aside for future needs. So this year’s proposal would use money from the state’s general revenue.

Now the governor will get two bills on his desk—one creates the emergency fund; the other fills it with money and gives the governor permission to use it.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

Gina Jordan is the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. Follow Gina: @hearyourthought on Twitter. Click below for Gina's full bio.