Senators advance hurricane recovery assistance bill

The Legislature is triaging after two destructive hurricanes late this year.

Senate panels have advanced lawmakers’ plan to provide immediate relief to Floridians hit by a pair of hurricanes that ravaged the state late in the hurricane season.

After Hurricanes Ian and Nicole struck Florida’s west and east coasts this fall, Gov. Ron DeSantis called for a Special Session to cut property taxes on Floridians impacted by the storms. Speaking before the Senate Community Affairs and Fiscal Policy committees Monday, Sen. Travis Hutson suggested the bill (SB 4A) is the first in a series of measures the Legislature will take to ease the cost of the storms on Floridians and mitigate future damage.

Hutson, the St. Augustine Republican who is shepherding the legislation, likened Ian and Nicole to successive T-bone and sideswipe wrecks for the state.

“There will still be more surgeries, follow up consultations and rehab in the following Regular Session,” said Hutson, who also chairs the Fiscal Policy Committee. “If you are not in this bill, there is still time for you. Today is about the triage and stabilization of our state.”

The headlining measure from the bill will provide homeowners with tax rebates based on how long their homes have been deemed uninhabitable by the storms. If a home was rendered uninhabitable for 30 days or more, property owners will receive rebates based on the number of days their home was unlivable.

Both committees advanced the panel unanimously. But Democrats, such as Miami-Dade Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo, want to ensure the refunds are reserved for displaced Floridians, not snowbirds or Floridians who lost their beach houses.

“I’m ultimately a ‘no’ if this money is not going to Floridians who live here, whose families have been displaced, not who have a second or third home and, ‘Oh, our beach house is not available, we’ll have to go somewhere else,’ but who have kids who have to go to a different school or couch surfing,” Pizzo told the Community Affairs Committee. “That’s where the money should be going.”

Hutson agreed with Pizzo’s concern but said he trusted property appraisers and tax collectors to assess whether a rebate is proper. The bill does not outline how property appraisers determine whether an applicant is entitled to a refund and allows applicants to bump their request to the value adjustment board.

Legislative economists expect the proposal will reduce local tax revenue by $18.3 million.

Chris Doolin, speaking on behalf of the Small County Coalition, called for the state to pitch in to offset the reduction in tax revenue, as the state has done for past storms. Because the rebates come from property taxes assessed for 2022, the reduced revenue will eat into the budgets counties and cities have already assessed.

“In six months or so, we’re going to see a debit or a reduction based on the rebates, so our budgets are going to be hit on expenses we’ve already incurred,” Doolin said.

The bill also sets aside $251.5 million for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

One program called the Hurricane Restoration Reimbursement Grant Program, funded at $50 million, will provide funds for homeowners who spent money to prevent coastal erosion on their property or who are making repairs after coastal erosion.

Another DEP program would be called the Hurricane Stormwater and Wastewater Assistance Grant Program, funded at $100 million. The program would provide local governments with up to $10 million per project to remediate damage to their stormwater and wastewater systems caused by either of the cyclones.

Pepper Uchino, president of the Florida Shore & Beach Preservation Association, feared the Hurricane Restoration Reimbursement Grant Program prioritizes elevating shorelines, which could lead to more erosion, a significant factor from Hurricane Nicole’s landfall.

Under the Division of Emergency Management (DEM), the bill also creates the Florida Emergency Management Assistance Foundation, a proposed state nonprofit to distribute funds, grants, gifts and more to local governments and individuals impacted by natural emergencies.

The bill also adds $350 million to the Public Assistant Program grants program until June 2028. Additionally, it adds $150 million to the Florida Housing Finance Corporation for its category for affordable housing for hurricane recovery.

Freshman Republican Sen. Jonathan Martin is a member of the Community Affairs Committee and represents coastal Lee County, which received some of the worst destruction from Hurricane Ian when it made landfall in late September. Speaking to Florida Politics after the meeting, he called the bill a good, quick first step to help his community recover.

Martin said the next step is to meet with community leaders and to assess how the millions in hurricane relief helped. He was certain the funding would go to Floridians who suffered losses during the storms.

“As long as I have a seat up here, I’m going to make sure that everybody in the county who is damaged by the storm has the ability to either have the chance to rebuild their lives through government help or through their insurance policies that they had in place and help them navigate those hardships,” Martin said.

“The next steps, it’s obviously sitting down with all the community leaders. How did this money help? What’s our deficit?” Martin said. “There’s just been a tremendous amount of money that’s been fronted for the recovery efforts still going on. I mean, we’re not even 90 days out yet from the hurricane hitting, so we have a lot of work to do.”

The full Senate is expected to take up the measure Tuesday, along with the two other Special Session bills.

Ocala Republican Rep. Stan McClain and Ormond Beach Republican Rep. Tom Leek are carrying the legislation (HB 3A) through the House. Two House committees will assess the bill before it goes to a vote before the full House, scheduled for Wednesday.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.

One comment

  • tom palmer

    December 12, 2022 at 3:50 pm

    The damage from the hurricanes was horrible, but I didn’t see anything in this discussion that didn’t reflect the impulse to continue coastal construction in the way it has occurred for decades in Florida in the face of the reality that this is fiscally unsustainable. More developer subsidies are not the answer.

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