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Florida Bill Would Provide Emergency Fund To Better Plan For Future Pandemics

Hush Naidoo

Gov. Ron DeSantis said the proposed fund would eliminate the need to seek general revenue to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and future emergencies.

A new pool of money for emergencies, separate from the state’s traditional “rainy day” funds, would be created in the governor’s office under a pandemic relief measure approved Tuesday by a Senate committee.

A week after Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed using $1 billion in federal stimulus money to seed a new emergency-management response fund, the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee backed a measure (SB 1892) by Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, to set up an “Emergency Preparedness and Response Fund” in the governor’s office.

Diaz said the Legislature in its annual budget process would have to set the initial amount going into the fund, with the anticipation that any money spent during an emergency would be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“I would imagine that it would be practical to put a certain amount … maybe if we were putting money in reserves, maybe a decision could be made to place a particular percentage of that in this fund that would be adequate to respond to an emergency,” Diaz said. “Obviously, the emergency that we are facing with COVID, over a year long, is very different from what we usually face, like hurricanes, which we're pretty adept at.”

Asked about public oversight of the money, Diaz said the fund would follow the same transparency rules as any trust fund set up by the state.

Currently, unspent general revenue and what is known as the Budget Stabilization Fund are considered “rainy day” money that can be used to react to situations such as hurricanes.

While lawmakers this session have expressed concerns about the extent of emergency powers of future governors, Senate committee Chairman Tom Wright, R-New Smyrna Beach, said the establishment of a fund in the governor’s office was initially proposed after Hurricane Michael in October 2018.

“Our three senators from the Panhandle were quite beside themselves that it took FEMA so long, and they were just desperate for any help at all,” Wright said. “And I believe the governor went ahead and just advanced some money under emergency powers.”

DeSantis last week included the recommendation about $1 billion for an emergency fund in outlining how he’d like to see legislators allocate $4.1 billion from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act. In all, Florida expects to receive $9 billion to $10 billion from the federal stimulus package.

DeSantis said the proposed fund would eliminate the need to seek general revenue to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and future emergencies.

“The newly established fund will add an additional layer of reserve to the state’s overall fiscal outlook,” DeSantis said. “And so, what will happen is if there's a hurricane, you incur expenses, you pay out of that fund, and then FEMA would reimburse to that fund. Ideally, we would never have to touch general revenue again to respond to natural disasters if we're able to establish this fund right now.”

DeSantis also suggested stimulus money could be used for seaports, roads, combating sea-level rise, recruiting new members of the Florida National Guard, increasing Florida tourism marketing and providing $1,000 bonuses for first responders.

The House Pandemic & Public Emergencies Committee is scheduled Wednesday to take up its version of the bill (HB 1595) to create a fund in the governor’s office.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, has pushed for such an emergency fund and said Thursday he was encouraged by the governor’s recommendation.

“To have that robustly funded so that in a state of emergency --- of course, at the time, we were anticipating hurricanes, not this --- but in any state of emergency, that would be a fund that we have immediate access to,” Sprowls said. “That's what it's for. And that would help us because there's been massive delays, of course, in the past by FEMA reimbursement, so (it) allows us to be a little bit more fiscally sound.”

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Jim Turner - News Service of Florida