The Florida Senate on Wednesday, Jan. 19, cut in half the amount of money it would put into a new emergency fund that critics called a “blank check” for Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The Senate overwhelmingly approved two bills (SB 96 and SB 98) that would shift $500 million of general revenue into the pot of money that the governor could tap during declared states of emergency over the next four years. The Senate initially had considered putting $1 billion into the pot.
Meanwhile, a House committee moved forward with its version of the proposal, which would provide $1 billion that DeSantis could use at his discretion. The House and Senate would ultimately have to agree on any final amount.
The idea for the fund came after the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Senate bill sponsor Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, said the decision to reduce the proposed amount from $1 billion to $500 million was based on bipartisan concerns about the higher amount during an Appropriations Committee meeting last week.
“I believe this number still meets the goals of the bill and that we also ensure that there is flexibility and accountability in the course of an emergency,” Burgess said of the $500 million amount.
Sen. Gary Farmer, a Lighthouse Democrat who voted against both Senate bills, called the proposed fund a “blank check” for DeSantis even with the lower amount.
“He's got the ability already to take some monies that are appropriated for emergency services and spend them as he chooses,” Farmer said. “This adds a half a billion dollars to that, with no accountability.”
Burgess said the state anticipates that money spent from the fund would be reimbursed by the federal government, similar to the way current spending is recouped after declared states of emergency.
Any additional funding on top of the $500 million would require the governor to seek approval from the Joint Legislative Budget Commission, made up of House and Senate members.
The commission has long had authority to make mid-year budget changes and act on spending requests from the executive branch, though it does not meet frequently.
Supporters of the new fund say it would allow the governor to move more quickly during emergencies without having to wait for the legislative panel to convene.
Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican who serves on the legislative commission, said the revised Senate measure returns power to the Legislature.
“We empower our governor whoever he or she is. We know something bad could happen,” Bean said. “And there's enough resources to start the recovery, the mission to save Floridians or recovery, or whatever that is. But then you've got the LBC (Legislative Budget Commission) backup.”
Earlier Wednesday in party-line votes, the House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee approved a pair of bills (PCB PPE 22-01 and PCB PPE 22-02) that were similar to the Senate bills — other than the $1 billion funding amount.
Lawmakers approved an emergency-fund proposal last year, but DeSantis vetoed it after questions were raised about using federal stimulus dollars for the fund.
House Democrats argued this year’s proposal fails to place limits on what constitutes an emergency and how money could be spent.
"We should be able to put some guardrails under what the governor can declare as a disaster. We should be able to put some guardrails in terms of having legislative review,” Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said. “Again, I don't consider the Legislature to be red tape. I think we've set up a system of checks and balances to make sure that we as a legislature are appropriating funds, and that we're not just giving the governor, whoever may be the governor in the future, a blank check."
Rep. Mike Caruso, R-Delray Beach, disagreed.
“The act specifically authorizes the governor to use all resources of the state, state government, county governments and municipalities as he sees fit in coping with an emergency as defined," Caruso said. “So, setting aside $1 billion at this time for immediate access by the governor under a state of emergency just seems like a reasonable and prudent thing to do.”