TALLAHASSEE — After spending more than $1 billion in the almost five months since Hurricane Michael ripped through a large swath of the eastern Panhandle, state lawmakers say it’s clear that the cleanup, recovery and cost of one of the nation’s worst storms is far from complete.
When lawmakers open the 2019 session Tuesday, they’ll be struggling to meet what Senate budget chief Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said is a likely price tag topping $2.7 billion.
On top of that, more than $600 million is proposed to be scattered across another 100 projects — rebuilding communities, schools and infrastructure across some of the 10 counties staggered by the Category 4 storm.
“It’s going to guide our decision-making from a budget standpoint,” said Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
But there clearly is competition for the cash.
While Northwest Florida residents and officials have complained about the region being forgotten since the October hurricane — with donations to relief funds below those which poured in following earlier hurricanes — lawmakers have a long list of spending priorities.
In his $91.3 billion state budget recommendations, Gov. Ron DeSantis laid out plans to direct almost $2 billion in state and federal spending to help the state recover from the devastation caused by hurricanes Michael and Irma, which coursed the length of Florida a year earlier.
Debris removal, fisheries rehabilitation, a home buyout program, workforce re-training and beach restoration are among the areas DeSantis would target for money.
But the new governor also wants $625 million for water cleanup efforts in the wake of last summer’s algae blooms which fouled both coasts. Galvano and House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami, also have ambitious plans for highway expansion and health care changes, respectively, which could command dollars.
Florida’s relatively robust economy has helped pour another $1 billion of tax receipts into the state treasury. Still, when it comes to hurricane relief, cash-flow remains an issue — with the state still waiting on millions of dollars in federal repayment for upfront state costs stemming from Hurricane Irma, and now Michael.
Bradley said Hurricane Michael had “real, enduring effects on our budget this year and in future years. And we need to be mindful of that as we build our budget.”
There are plenty of proposals for spending, especially in hard-hit Bay County, where Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, alone is sponsoring more than 60 bills totaling almost $400 million.
Trumbull is seeking state money for rebuilding Rutherford High School, J.R. Arnold High School and a score of elementary schools and hurricane-wracked water and sewer systems. He also wants funds for road repairs and a range of municipal work and beach restoration in Mexico Beach, which was almost wiped off the map by Michael’s 155 mph winds.
There are no guarantees, though, about how much money lawmakers could direct to the region, where some residents still live in tents, many jobs are gone and school districts are reporting the loss of thousands of students who have moved away.
Northwest Florida leaders clearly expect the Legislature to step up.
Money from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill was teed up last week to help Bay, Franklin, Gulf and Wakulla counties recover from expected property-tax losses caused by the destruction of Hurricane Michael.
The Triumph Gulf Coast Board agreed to set aside $15 million, which can cover losses suffered by the counties, cities and school districts dealing with a drop in tax dollars. But board members are wary of having the $2 billion settlement with BP turned into a piggy bank for Hurricane Michael recovery.
“We have a fine line, too,” said Commissioner Allan Bense, a former Florida House speaker from Panama City. “I also don’t want for the rest of Florida to think Triumph is going to take care of Michael, because that’s not our mission.”