Lawmakers wait to see if storm action needed

Incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton (Photo courtesy: News Service of Florida)
Incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton (Photo courtesy: News Service of Florida) (News Service of Florida)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Roads are out. Some schools are rubble. Housing needs are growing.

The next leaders of the Florida Legislature say they’re ready to assist Gov. Rick Scott or state agencies in the recovery from devastating Hurricane Michael. They just need to be asked.

“If the governor identifies an unmet need that requires swift legislative action, we will certainly work with him to address it,” incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said Monday.

But Galvano and incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, are not expecting such action until more is known about the impacts of the storm, which came ashore Wednesday near Panama City with 155 mph sustained winds. Michael plunged more than 400,000 utility customers into the dark and leveled homes and businesses in a deadly path that cut north across rural Panhandle communities into Southwest Georgia.

“In the here and now, if the governor or any agency needs resources or assistance for issues created by Hurricane Michael, the Florida House stands ready to help,” Oliva said.

State lawmakers are set to return to Tallahassee shortly after the Nov. 6 election for an organizational session that includes seating new members and formally making Oliva and Galvano the leaders of their respective chambers.

The 2019 legislative session will start in March. But lawmakers can take actions in the interim by holding special sessions or convening the Joint Legislative Budget Commission, which is made up of House and Senate members and can shift money to address needs.

Galvano noted that lawmakers from the hurricane-impacted areas have been working with Scott, Cabinet members and state agencies, while Senate staff members in Tallahassee has been coordinating with district offices to ensure the continuation of constituent services.

Also, Galvano said state budget reserves are available for Scott to direct toward the storm response.

“The governor has broad executive authority to utilize those reserves to allocate state resources needed to further a comprehensive response in the immediate aftermath of the storm,” Galvano said.

In waiting, Oliva said he would also like to see if measures crafted by the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness after last year’s Hurricane Irma had any effect.

“It is my hope that many of those recommendations became a reality, but we will likely assess what went wrong and what went right after we all work to help our fellow Floridians put their lives back together,” Oliva said.

Many of the post-Irma proposals were designed to address issues in the agriculture industry and more densely populated portions of the state, where major highways that serve as arteries for food, water and fuel also are primary evacuation routes.

Money was set aside for a variety of purposes, such as $15 million for affordable housing in the Irma-battered Keys and $11.2 million for beach restoration.

Lawmakers also approved, as part of a wider tax-relief package, a property-tax break for homeowners displaced by Irma. In addition, they approved tax breaks on fuel used to transport agricultural products after the storm; on agricultural fencing materials purchased for repairs after the storm; and for citrus packing houses that had their businesses interrupted by Irma or by the deadly disease citrus greening.

Despite the changes, other storm-related proposals --- such as taking steps to strengthen the electric grid, create a strategic fuel-reserve task force, and use rail-tank cars to bring fuel into evacuation areas to avoid a repeat of runs on gas stations --- failed to advance during this year’s legislative session.

Rep. Jeanette Nunez, a Miami Republican who chaired the select committee and is now the running mate of GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, said after the 2018 session that she hoped lawmakers would try to tackle some of the recommendations that failed to advance rather than grow complacent.