Increased Idalia Aid, Home Program Money Backed

TALLAHASSEE — As a special legislative session began Monday, lawmakers moved forward with a proposal that would offer additional assistance to Hurricane Idalia victims and provide money to address a backlog of residents seeking to improve their homes to reduce insurance premiums.

Democrats raised some concerns that a developer-friendly part of the bill could affect storm-resilience efforts in Southwest Florida and that money could go to a Taylor County mill whose closure was announced shortly after Hurricane Idalia. But the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee unanimously approved the bill (SB 2-C), which would pump $416 million into a series of programs tied to Idalia recovery efforts and the My Safe Florida Home program.

Senate sponsor Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, said the proposal is only part of the assistance needed in rural areas that sustained damage in Idalia, a Category 3 hurricane that made landfall Aug. 30 in the Keaton Beach area of Taylor County before tearing across parts of North Florida.

“This is just one, one bill,” Simon, whose sprawling district includes Taylor County, said. “We’ve got more work to do.”

The full House is expected Tuesday to vote on its version of the bill (HB 1C), with the Senate giving final approval as soon as Wednesday.

The Senate measure drew praise Monday for helping the agriculture industry, which sustained widespread damage in Idalia, assisting local governments in paying storm-recovery bills and reducing a backlog of 17,000 applications in the My Safe Florida Home program.

“This bill provides a comprehensive response. It is a great framework,” Small County Coalition lobbyist Chris Doolin said. “It will need some additional attention during the (regular legislative) session because one of the major impacts (of the storm) is the impacts on the tax roll. We don’t know what that is yet.”

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Ernest Fulford, a farmer from Jefferson County who grows cotton, peanuts, soybeans and corn, said insurance doesn’t cover the more than $500,000 in losses his farm suffered from Idalia.

“This will hopefully keep us, and many other farmers like me, in business,” Fulford said.

The group 1000 Friends of Florida objected to part of the bill that would extend by two years, to Oct. 1, 2026, a prohibition on local governments raising building fees or adopting “restrictive or burdensome” changes to comprehensive plans and land-development regulations in areas affected by Hurricane Ian in 2022.

Paul Owens, president of 1000 Friends of Florida, said the provision “could be used to prevent measures to harden or raise buildings in areas prone to storm surge or flooding or to prevent construction in the most dangerous areas.”

The group contended the provision runs counter to an executive-order directive from Gov. Ron DeSantis calling for increased efforts to protect Florida communities from flooding, sea-level rise and future storms.

When Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boca Raton, asked Simon if he was concerned that the extension would affect local resilience efforts, Simon simply replied, “No, I’m not.”

The House and Senate bills would provide $75 million for a program that provides low-interest or interest-free loans to agriculture and aquaculture producers, $37.5 million to help timber owners in counties affected by Idalia and $50 million for hurricane-repair and recovery projects in counties that received Federal Emergency Management disaster designations.

But questions have emerged about whether Georgia-Pacific, which announced in September that it would close its Foley Cellulose mill in Taylor County, could apply for storm-related funding. The closure is expected to directly affect 525 jobs in a rural community.

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“This bill is not for you,” Simon said, adding he was directly addressing Georgia-Pacific. “This bill is for the people that have suffered immensely because of this storm.”

After the meeting, Simon said if changes are needed, they would be addressed when the bill goes to the Senate floor.

The biggest-ticket part of the bill is $176.17 million for grants in the My Safe Florida Home program, which assists homeowners pay for such things as reinforcing roof-to-wall connections, upgrading roof coverings and upgrading doors and windows.

As of Oct. 26, with 20,979 My Safe Florida Home grants approved, more than $209 million has been obligated to homeowners, according to a House staff analysis. Meanwhile, 17,617 grant applications awaited funding. Also, inspections had been completed on 85,687 homes, with another 12,310 in the pipeline.

Lawmakers have provided $215 million for the grants since the program was relaunched in 2022 after a long hiatus.

The bills also would provide another $25 million to the Florida Housing Finance Corp. for what is known as the Hurricane Housing Recovery Program in counties designated by the federal government after Idalia. In addition, tax breaks would be offered on agricultural equipment that couldn’t be used in the two months after the storm; on the purchase of fencing and building materials purchased to make repairs after Idalia; and on fuel used for agricultural shipments and debris removal.

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