Lawmakers add $360 million to Ian efforts
TALLAHASSEE --- A legislative budget panel Wednesday gave Gov. Ron DeSantis an additional $360 million to pump into Hurricane Ian projects, as response efforts continue two weeks after the storm made landfall in Southwest Florida.
In an emergency meeting, the Joint Legislative Budget Commission approved adding the money to the state Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund, which was established this year with $500 million.
“This is what everyone has agreed to at this point would work,” said Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican who helps lead the panel, which is made up of Senate and House members.
State Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie told the panel by phone that the state is still in a storm-response phase, as it could be three weeks before flood water from the St. Johns River recedes in Central Florida counties.
“We do not know what that debris removal is going to look like,” Guthrie said. “We are still in a response phase throughout much of the state. We are starting the recovery phase, obviously, in the hardest-hit, catastrophic-impact areas of Southwest Florida.”
Chris Spencer, director of policy and budget for DeSantis, said the state is already obligated to pay $525 million for a range of projects such as road repairs and debris removal and that projected costs are expected to rise to $1.4 billion.
He said the governor’s office doesn’t anticipate making further funding requests at this time.
“Obviously, as things develop on the ground, depending on other major, more-long term recovery requirements, housing missions, those types of things, there can be a vendor that may change,” Spencer told the lawmakers.
With Florida approved to receive 100 percent of recovery costs from the federal government for 60 days, the state expects to recoup almost all of the initial storm-response funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Incoming Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said she anticipates putting forward legislation during the 2023 session to address housing. The session will start in March.
“Affordable housing has been a huge challenge in Southwest Florida, and the devastation that we've seen across our communities amplify these challenges,” said Passidomo, who noted later that storm surge led to four feet of water inside her home.
Lawmakers this year created the emergency fund as a pool of cash the governor could dip into without having to get approval from the budget commission, which meets periodically. The commission has authority to make mid-year budget decisions.
Lawmakers initially approved the emergency fund in 2021, but DeSantis vetoed it after questions were raised about using federal stimulus dollars to seed the program. As approved this year, the emergency fund draws money from state general revenue, which is where unused federal stimulus dollars were redirected.
The legislative panel held a moment of silence for people who died in the Category 4 storm, which made landfall Sept. 28 and then crossed the state.
As of Tuesday night, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement listed 103 deaths linked to Ian, including 52 in Lee County. Other estimates have put the death count higher.