Florida special session includes bills for home improvements and hurricane aid

Hurricane Idalia
Street flooding in Gulfport, Florida from Hurricane Idalia storm surge. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News (30 Aug. 2023)

By Jim Turner ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers next week will take up proposals that would boost assistance after Hurricane Idalia and provide money to ease a backlog of residents seeking to lower insurance premiums by improving their homes.

The proposals, released Thursday in advance of Monday’s start of a special legislative session, would provide about $416 million to various efforts tied to the hurricane and to the My Safe Florida Home Program.

Similar bills (SB 2C and HB 1-C) filed by Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, and Rep. Jason Shoaf, R-Port St. Joe, include aiding farmers, ranchers and timber growers who sustained damage in Idalia, which made landfall Aug. 31 in Taylor County and tore through rural areas of the state’s Big Bend region and other parts of North Florida.

In a memo to senators about the special session, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, called Simon’s proposal, “a robust relief package that will impact families, businesses and entire communities across Florida’s Big Bend in a meaningful way.”

The state has estimated that Idalia caused $447 million in agricultural damage, with its biggest impact on such things as cattle and poultry operations, followed by field crops.

The proposals by Simon and Shoaf would provide $75 million for a program that provides low-interest or interest-free loans to agriculture and aquaculture producers and $37.5 million to help timber owners in counties affected by the Category 4 storm.

Also, the bills would provide tax breaks on agricultural equipment that couldn’t be used in the two months after the storm; on the purchase of fencing and building materials purchased to make repairs after Idalia; and on fuel used for agricultural shipments and debris removal.

The $37.5 million for timber owners involves a grant program that would cover up to 75 percent of the costs of site preparation and tree replanting on land damage in the storm. The program would include a maximum of $250,000 per grant.

Among other things, the bills include $50 million for hurricane repair and recovery projects in counties that received Federal Emergency Management disaster designations. Another $25 million would go to the Florida Housing Finance Corp. for what is known as the Hurricane Housing Recovery Program in the designated counties.

The My Safe Florida Home program, meanwhile, provides grants to help homeowners pay for such things as reinforcing roof-to-wall connections, upgrading roof coverings and upgrading doors and windows, according to the program’s website.

Lawmakers included $100 million for the program in this year’s state budget, which took effect July 1. But the program has used most of the $215 million it has received for grants since it was relaunched in 2022 after a long hiatus.

The Simon and Shoaf bills would provide an additional $176.17 million to the program for grants and about $5.3 million for administrative costs. The additional grant money, however, would only be available to people who have already applied for the program, as more than 17,000 applications await funding.

When asked last week, state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, whose agency oversees the program, said inspections were ongoing, while adding “there’s definitely more demand than there’s dollars in the bank.”

The bills would limit the grant money to applications made by Oct. 15 and prevent creating “a waiting list in anticipation of additional funding unless the Legislature provides express authority to implement such actions.”

As of Oct. 26, with 20,979 My Safe Florida Home grants approved, more than $209 million had been obligated to homeowners, according to a House staff analysis. Meanwhile, inspections had been completed on 85,687 homes, with another 12,310 in the pipeline.

About $27.65 million had been sent to 3,021 homeowners. Of those homeowners, 1,562 had reported annual insurance premium discounts of $1,006, the House analysis said.

Data from the Insurance Information Institute, an industry organization, puts Florida’s home insurance — including windstorm coverage, but not flood protection — at an average cost of $6,000 a year. The average is 42 percent higher than in 2022.

The national average is $1,700 a year, which grew by 11 percent from 2022.

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