The Senate has again passed measures to establish an emergency response fund for the Governor, but not with the unanimous support the legislation received last year.
In 2021, the Senate voted unanimously to stow away $1 billion for the Governor to spend in an Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund. Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the Legislature to establish the fund. However, after the Governor said he was forced to veto the measure, lawmakers returned this Session with an alternate plan to set up the stash.
Despite the unanimous passage last year, some Democrats have changed their mind this year, arguing there’s no accountability for how the Governor could spend those dollars.
Senators approved an amendment Wednesday to a bill, filed by Zephyrhills Republican Sen. Danny Burgess, to store only $500 million in a proposed Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund. The original measure (SB 96) would have installed $1 billion into the fund.
The Senate passed the bill on a 31-4 vote, with Democratic Sens. Gary Farmer, Bobby Powell, Annette Taddeo and Victor Torres holding out.
Burgess said the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s first sustained state of emergency, exposed a loophole in how the state allocates emergency dollars.
“All levels of government are coming together to make sure that going forward, it’s not just a blank check,” Burgess told senators.
Burgess said he raised the amendment to halve the amount in the fund from $1 billion after receiving input from both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The fix appeared to assuage some senators, including Democratic Leader Lauren Book, Democratic Sens. Randolph Bracy, Audrey Gibson and Jason Pizzo, and Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes. They were among the senators who voted against the bill in the Senate Appropriations Committee a week ago.
Fernandina Beach Republican Sen. Aaron Bean told senators “the porridge is just right,” a medium between too large and too small. The Governor would be allowed to go to the Joint Legislative Budget Commission to request more funds if the Governor drains the emergency pot.
“The best of both worlds is we give resources to deploy. And should the Governor — he or she, whoever it is — need more, we are ready to do our part to keep Florida safe,” Bean said.
Lawmakers also approved a second bill (SB 98) establishing the fund. Farmer was the only Senator to vote against that measure during the 34-1 vote.
“There have been questions for the last two years as to how and where he was spending his money and with whom he was collaborating, and were some of those expenditures given to people who donated a lot of money to his campaign,” Farmer said. “These types of questions are exactly why we don’t give a Governor a blank check.”
Burgess said the concept of a state emergency response fund began in the wake of Hurricane Michael, which struck the Florida Panhandle in October 2018. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to the category 5 hurricane was initially too slow, he asserted.
“As a state, we want to make sure we’re not reliant on federal partners so that we can respond appropriately, immediately, efficiently to keep Floridians safe,” Burgess said.
DeSantis last year told reporters he was forced to veto the measure’s first version after the federal government said the fund would have been a misuse of pandemic relief dollars.
DeSantis had said creating the Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund was a priority last year and recommended the state use money 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.
Past major emergencies have cost the state well over $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.
The House Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee and Fort Pierce Republican Rep. Dana Trabulsy filed companion measures (HB 7023 and HB 7025) to Burgess’ bills Wednesday afternoon.
During a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting on Wednesday, Pizzo — who voted against the bill in committee but voted yes on the floor — told Democrats he believes DeSantis will veto the measure again.
“What I would ask is that we stay (as a) ‘yes,’ and if the future of the outcome of this piece of legislation is vetoed like it was last year, that we all — in a bipartisan fashion — hold our ground and keep those checks and balances in place and insist that this be the bill,” Pizzo told the full Senate.