Citrus money passes House but could stall in Senate

By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Federal relief for Florida citrus growers cleared the U.S. House on Thursday, but its fate remained unclear in the Senate, which may not take up the package until January.

Before the House vote, leaders separated an $81 billion disaster-relief package that includes citrus money from a short-term funding resolution needed to keep the government open through mid-January.

The move drew protests from some members of Florida's congressional delegation, as they believe the relief package, which includes $2.6 billion for crop losses, became less likely to win Senate approval without the “must-pass” label of the funding bill.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, a Charlotte County Republican who helped lead efforts to get the crop-damage money into the relief package this week, was among those who voted against the short-term funding bill.

“I have been repeatedly told and promised that federal aid would be on the way,” Rooney said in a prepared statement. “The bill released this week containing my request to help Florida's farmers recover from the storm became a piece in a political and partisan game. The political reality is that the only way this disaster funding was going to be signed into law before Christmas was for it to be combined with the continuing resolution.”

U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican, also voted against the gap funding, noting that “despite our efforts, help is not yet on the way” for Florida's farmers.

“Today's continuing resolution says to Florida farmers: You're on your own,” Ross said in a prepared statement. “It neglects Florida's citrus producers who needed something --- anything --- to help them stave off this devastation.”

The vote on the relief package came after Republicans cobbled together enough support to narrowly approve the continuing resolution, which is aimed at keeping the government funded through Jan. 19.

State officials and members of Florida's congressional delegation have pursued citrus-industry funding through a series of previous disaster packages.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam's department estimated in October that the citrus industry took a $761 million hit from Hurricane Irma. Since then, a number of lawmakers and Putnam said the damage estimate has grown to possibly more than $1 billion, as fruit continued to fall early from trees that were flooded by the September storm.

State officials, including Putnam and Florida Citrus Commission Chairman G. Ellis Hunt, rushed to Washington on Wednesday to put faces behind the disaster funding request.

Putnam said in a release Thursday that Florida's agriculture industry cannot fully recover “without the emergency assistance.”

In addition to the citrus losses, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has estimated that Irma inflicted $624 million in damage to the nursery industry, $237.5 million in damage to the cattle industry, $11.8 million in damage to dairy farmers, $383 million in damage to the sugar industry, and $180 million in damage to vegetable and non-citrus fruit growers.

Florida growers were overlooked in two prior disaster-relief packages approved by Congress in response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Irma in Florida, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and wildfires in California.

News Service of Florida