By Jim Turner ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A fund set up for the governor to quickly dispense money during emergencies would be nearly $59 million in the hole if all obligations for hurricane clean-up, immigration enforcement and Israel relief and rescue efforts came due today.
But with Gov. Ron DeSantis expected to ask for an additional $1 billion for the state Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund during the upcoming legislative session, his budget director Chris Spencer said Tuesday the issue is mostly about accounting projections and is not at a crisis level.
“The fund is something that we deal with on an accounting basis to make sure that we can satisfy those obligations,” Spencer told the House Appropriations Committee. “But when there’s an emergency declared, we respond.”
The governor’s office can request additional mid-year money from the Joint Legislative Budget Commission, but Spencer said that is not anticipated this fiscal year because the fund holds just under $1 billion. The Joint Legislative Budget Commission is made up of House and Senate members.
In questioning Spencer, House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said a negative cash balance “looks like a blemish on our financial planning.”
But Appropriations Chairman Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, said the Legislature’s allocations to the fund are viewed as a “placeholder.”
“It should not be unexpected or uncommon that when you have years in which there are an unusual number of emergencies or unusually costly emergencies that it may require more money,” Leek said.
Created in 2022, DeSantis can use money from the fund during declared states of emergency.
The fund has received $2.92 billion in state general revenue, including $500 million in the budget for the current fiscal year that began July 1. It has also drawn $621 million in federal dollars. Just over $2.56 billion has been spent.
Spencer said after Tuesday’s meeting that he will recommend $1 billion to replenish the fund during the 2024-2025 fiscal year. DeSantis will release his budget proposal for the fiscal year in the next few weeks. The 2024 session will start in January.
The fund is expected to receive invoices on several fronts.
Clean-up efforts involving hurricanes Ian and Nicole, which hit the state in 2022, and Idalia in August could reach $2.4 billion through already-obligated money and projected needs.
The state has already spent $2.7 billion on storm relief efforts, with most expected to eventually be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Spencer said.
“Just knowing what’s currently in the queue, and where they are in the stages of the queue at FEMA, we are pretty comfortable that we’re going to get a significant amount of cash for some of the major big-ticket expenditures that are incoming, particularly non-congregate sheltering and debris,” Spencer said.
But the timing of reimbursements isn’t certain, as the state continues to receive federal funding for 2018’s Hurricane Michael and awaits $800 million in COVID-19 assistance, Spencer said.
The state doesn’t anticipate reimbursements for all of its emergency spending, particularly immigration enforcement and efforts involving Israel.
Recently, the state started rescue flights and supply missions in Israel amid the war between Israel and Hamas. Costs could top $36 million, according to figures presented to the committee.
Also, the state has spent $27.4 million related to immigration issues on the nation’s border with Mexico, including controversial flights of migrants to Massachusetts and California. Another $11.997 million could still be spent, according to figures presented to the Appropriations Committee.
Ongoing immigration enforcement efforts in the Florida Keys and other parts of Florida, which have already cost $52 million, could require another $9.8 million.