Senate leaders are questioning whether Gov. Rick Scott overstepped his constitutional authority when he opened three disaster relief centers to help Puerto Ricans who came to Florida to escape the destruction caused to the island by Hurricane Maria.
The question came up again Wednesday at the Senate Appropriations Committee meeting.
State Sen. Victor Torres, D-Kissimmee, who has family in Puerto Rico, asked committee members to factor in the expected influx of Puerto Rican evacuees in their budget considerations for the upcoming year.
“Our failure to take appropriate actions now will only lead to great economic impacts in years to come,” Torres told committee members.
The chairman of the budget committee says it’s not a matter of whether the state will help, but rather who has the constitutional authority to direct that help.
“The question that has been raised is not about helping these people, it’s about whether or not the governor has the authority, under the Constitution of Florida, for an event that did not directly impact the state of Florida to unilaterally make spending decisions for the event,” said Sen. Jack Latvala. “The question is should we have a little more consultation in a cooperative approach with the Legislature.”
Shortly after Maria hit, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for all of Florida to better coordinate relief efforts to Puerto Rico and to better assist with arrival of evacuees.
The governor used that order to set-up three relief centers at Orlando International Airport, Miami International Airport and the Port of Miami, to help provide assistance to those coming from Puerto Rico.
As of last week, more than 58,000 Puerto Ricans had arrived in Florida since Maria hit.
“I think the governor is acting in good faith,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who is set to take over as Senate President next year. “But that’s something the Legislature needs to deal with.”
The governor also ordered the state’s public schools to waive state rules and regulations to ensure the smooth transition of displaced children. He also directed that requirements for teachers who have been displaced by Maria be waived.
Scott also authorized state colleges to waive rules and requirements so that Puerto Rican students can more quickly enroll in a college. All 28 Florida College System institutions have agreed to offer in-state tuition to Puerto Rican students who were impacted by the hurricane.
“The Governor will continue to do everything within his executive authority to protect lives and help those recovering from these terrible disasters,” said McKinley Lewis, the governor’s deputy communications director. “This includes appropriating emergency funds to help Florida families recover from Hurricane Irma and aid our neighbors in Puerto Rico as they recover from Hurricane Maria.”
The Governor’s Office said FEMA has agreed to reimburse the state 100 percent of the emergency management costs of the state’s three disaster relief centers.
“The question is should we have a little more consultation in a cooperative approach with the Legislature,” said Sen. Latvala.