Senators last year voted unanimously to stow away $1 billion for the Governor to spend on emergencies, but making the fund a reality is proving more controversial.
After Gov. Ron DeSantis was forced to veto the Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund and an accompanying $1 billion installment for it, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 9-7 Wednesday to again set aside the amount. However, Democrats and some Republicans criticized the new plan (SB 96 and SB 98) for not placing guardrails around how the Governor could spend those dollars.
“I am unsure of what’s changed since last year, but the money’s going to the same place it would’ve gone last year when it went through the Florida Senate,” said Sen. Danny Burgess, the Zephyrhills Republican who is sponsoring the bill.
DeSantis had said creating the Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund was a priority last year and recommended the state use funds from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan to fill the pot. However, after the Legislature had approved it near-unanimously — the lone “no” vote coming from Boynton Beach Democratic Rep. Joe Casello — the state received federal guidance that the fund would be an inappropriate use of the federal relief dollars.
“We were going to run into the risk of having the feds come after us for it,” DeSantis said after announcing his budget veto.
With the Appropriations Committee vote, which saw six Democrats and one Republican vote against the measure, the bill is ready to be heard on the Senate floor.
During the meeting, several senators — mostly Democrats — raised concerns the bill doesn’t detail what the fund could be used for. The bill’s only limitation is that the Governor spend the funds in response to declared disasters or emergencies.
Miami-Dade Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo feared $1 billion is an irresponsible amount to set aside. The bill came from someone who doesn’t understand economics, he suggested.
“I realize I’m a Democrat, but man, you guys are not fiscally conservative at all,” Pizzo said.
Approving $1 billion for an unspecified purpose, he continued, breaches lawmakers’ duty to be responsible with taxpayer dollars. He requested benchmarks, metrics or some plan outlining what emergencies the fund could cover.
“I just need like a one-pager and I would be a yes, but it’s not fiscally responsible (to not) have that,” Pizzo said.
Complicating Pizzo’s stance has been DeSantis’ recent suggestion that immigration is also an emergency situation.
St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, who has not been a stranger to bucking Republican leadership, suggested $200 million as a more appropriate amount to set aside for the Governor before coming back to request more funds from the Legislature.
Brandes said members of the Senate should want oversight responsibility to make sure the funds are spent appropriately. A future Governor could have access to the spending, too.
“I think there’s a floor amendment coming,” Brandes told Florida Politics. “Let’s talk through the logic of this and make people defend their positions.”
Governors and executive officers can request additional spending from the Joint Legislative Budget Commission, a panel of lawmakers from both chambers. In the last few years, the commission has been generous regarding pandemic spending.
Florida has a significant surplus, currently expected to be more than $7 billion by the next fiscal year. Lawmakers mostly agreed that now would be the time to set aside spending for future emergencies.
Burgess stressed that the measure would dedicate just a portion of the rainy-day fund.
“We don’t know what we’re going to see in the future. We know what we’ve seen in the past and we know what we’re living through today,” Burgess said. “I think that what we’re doing is addressing all of those. And I believe that a billion dollars is certainly a large number. We’re a large state.”
Sen. Kelli Stargel, the Appropriations Committee Chair, told reporters she believes it’s OK to give the Governor authority to make quick decisions.
“It’s giving him some flexibility to be able to use those funds in an emergency without having to call up the Legislature, without having to do the (Legislative Budget Commission). You can make those responses much more quickly,” Stargel said.
Past major emergencies have cost the state well more than $1 billion. In response to hurricanes Irma and Michael, the state spent $3 billion each, Burgess said, relaying data from the Division of Emergency Management. So far, Florida has spent $2 billion on COVID-19 response.
“I just think this is about as responsible, as forward-thinking as it gets,” Burgess said.