Florida Senate pumps up spending for storm-battered Panhandle, but still short

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate is looking to pump another $220 million into projects to rebuild portions of the Panhandle battered by last fall’s Hurricane Michael, but it’s well short of what some lawmakers say is needed in the region.

The Senate’s budget proposal unveiled this week would bring the state’s overall investment in recovery from the Category 4 storm to $1.8 billion, with the bulk of spending already underway and some of it eligible for reimbursement from the federal government.

Still, storm costs have been estimated to hit $2.7 billion across the dozen counties hammered by the storm.

It was unclear Thursday just where the House will land on Hurricane Michael spending.

But the House so far has been tighter with its spending on schools, tourism and economic developments efforts, so the Senate may prove the better starting point in budget negotiations for those seeking state aid.

“I believe we have put forward a solid plan at the state level to ensure long-term sustained recovery for Florida’s Panhandle,” said Senate Budget Chair Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.

The Senate blueprint includes $100 million for affordable housing, to help families displaced by the storm. Another $35 million is anticipated for small county road projects, to rebuild the scores of roadways out of commission since last fall.

School districts, reeling since thousands of students have left in the storm’s wake, could collect $14.2 million to offset what, otherwise, would be a drop in state funding.

School allocations are based on student enrollment, and a decline of dollars have led many to fear that teacher and staff layoffs could soon follow — compounding problems in a sparsely populated region where many jobs already have been lost.

Calhoun County would get $3.2 million for classroom construction and Jackson and Liberty counties, respectively, would collect $19 million and $6 million for school construction.

Hospitals in the region are in line for some help, including Jackson Hospital, with $317,450 for an emergency backup water system; Doctors Memorial in Bonifay, which could draw $1.6 million for a rural clinic, and Calhoun-Liberty Hospital, which is in line for a $3.5 million rebuild.

“Five months later, we are still dealing with monumental challenges,” said Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, whose district includes six counties badly damaged by the hurricane. “This budget will help rebuild and heal our communities.”

Local governments, including Bay, Gulf, Jackson and Calhoun counties, along with a handful of cities, would draw state financing for repairs to wastewater systems, buildings, roads and other infrastructure.

While the Senate’s package is spread wide, Panhandle lawmakers are still seeking more aid, including the creation of a Hurricane Michael Recovery Task force, designed to coordinate funding needs and rebuilding efforts in coming months.

Gainer, Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, and Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, are seeking $315.3 million in state money, most of it for a loan program to help cities, counties and school boards replace public facilities destroyed or damaged by the storm.

Other provisions make lost timber land eligible for a farmers’ loan program and evaluate the quality of emergency operations in the region, during and after the storm.

In hard-hit Bay County, Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, is sponsoring more than 60 bills that would target almost $400 million for rebuilding schools, parks, roads and government buildings.

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