When Hurricane Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach on Oct. 10 it was the strongest storm to ever hit the Florida Panhandle. It tore a path of devastation through that part of the state that, nearly five months later, has left a financial hole in the state budget. Michael could cost the state close to $3 billion, according to said Senate President Bill Galvano, who met with reporters during a pre-session availability Friday.
“Hurricane Michael has become a tremendous challenge for us here in the state of Florida,” Galvano said’.
Shortly after Michael hit, Galvano estimated the state would, at the most, face a $1.1 billion price-tag for the storm.
“(Appropriations) Chair (Rob) Bradley is estimating it to be ultimately $2.7 billion. That’s huge,” said Galvano. “At this point, we’ve spent 150 percent more than we did on Irma,”
Irma hit Florida the year before Michael, but what makes the numbers remarkable, is while Irma caused widespread damage and affected just about every county in the state, the damage from Michael was relegated to a handful of counties in North Florida.
“A lot of it has to do with debris cleanup and the abilities of the rural communities and local governments come forward and have the resources to handle it,” Galvano added.
The federal government has agreed to pick up a greater percentage of the cost of the cleanup, but that money won’t be available to apply to the budget for next year. The feds still owe Florida $300 million for debris removal from Irma.
Sen. Galvano says the financial impact will “guide” the budget-making process and create challenges for this year’s Legislature, but he adds the state will not turn its back to the residents in the Panhandle who are trying to rebuild their homes, businesses and lives.
“We’ll do our best to accommodate or rebuild what we can at the state level,” Galvano said.
Galvano added the Triumph Gulf Coast Board, overseers of Gulf Coast oil spill money, voted earlier this month to create a $15 million fund to help some counties replace certain tax revenue losses caused by Hurricane Michael.
That leads us to the role of Gov. Ron DeSantis in the legislative process.
The Senate president says state lawmakers will meet the directive from Gov. Ron DeSantis to send him a bill by March 15 that would repeal the ban on smoking medical marijuana enacted by the Legislature last year. A judge has ruled the ban violates the medical marijuana amendment passed in 2016. DeSantis believes the ban defied the will of the voters.
DeSantis is still enjoying a popular honeymoon with voters since being sworn in last month. Galvano says he has had some conversations with DeSantis and credits the new governor with having a respect for the legislative branch of government.
Galvano was asked if the Republican-controlled Legislature would feel obligated to help DeSantis pass his initiatives in his first year as governor to help maintain his popularity.
“The Senate is going to operate within the Senate and we’re going to address the issues as we see fit,” insisted Galvano. “I am not going to have a Senate that is just a rubber stamp for the governor,”
And that takes us to Brian Pitts, the citizen advocate who for years has made a name for himself for appearing at numerous legislative committee meetings on a daily basis offering his opinions on both major pieces of legislation and obscure proposals.
After being absent during last year’s session, Brian Pitts is again walking the halls of the state Capitol bouncing from committee meeting to committee meeting.
“He’s part of the process and there are times when he’s testifying that he’ll have a nugget in his testimony that gives us pause or makes us rethink things,” said Galvano. “Sometimes it’s an entertainment value.
“Like everyone, he has an absolute right to share his views and his thoughts about what we do.”
The 2019 legislative session begins a week from Tuesday.