Monday was a double win for Florida with the long-delayed passage of the $19.1 billion disaster aid bill by the U.S. House of Representatives and the announcement that the National Park Service will receive $60 million to elevate a 6.5-mile span of the Tamiami Trail to improve Everglades sheetflow.
After nearly six months of partisan wrangling, the relief bill was adopted Monday night in a 354-58 vote as Congress returned from its Memorial Day recess. President Donald Trump has promised to sign it.
All 222 Democrats and 132 Republicans supported the bill – as did all 27 members of Florida’s House delegation – while 58 Republicans voted “no.”
Among those “no” votes were Texas Rep. Chip Roy, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie and Tennessee Rep. John Rose, who each filed lone “no” votes that delayed the package from being adopted by unanimous consent in three pro forma sessions during the recess.
Approved in an 85-8 vote by the Senate on May 23, the package is the largest disaster relief bill ever considered by Congress.
It includes assistance for victims of natural disasters across the country since 2017, ranging from California wildfires to Hawaiian volcano eruptions to hurricanes in the Southeast and flooding in Louisiana, the Midwest and elsewhere, including Category 5 Hurricane Michael, which stormed through North Florida last October causing an estimated $12 billion in damage and business losses.
The 70-page bill includes $1.67 billion to repair Tyndall Air Force Base, $2.4 billion in Community Development Block Grants [CDBG] disaster relief funding, $1.65 billion to rebuild damaged highways, $600 in economic assistance programs, $480 million for timber restoration and $150 million for fishery losses that Panhandle residents, businesses and governments can tap into.
The bill also extends the National Flood Insurance Program, which expired May 31, through Sept. 30.
The package was mired in partisan gridlock for months, first over President Trump’s insistence that it include $4.5 billion for border security and then over House Democrats’ demand it contain $1.4 billion for Puerto Rico, including $600 million for nutritional assistance, in its recovery from 2017’s Hurricane Maria.
That political feuding and ensuing delay proved costly for taxpayers and farmers, including many in the Panhandle, because assistance won’t reach them until after planting seasons for many crops, meaning some won’t plant at all and lose a year’s income.
The $3 billion for farmers who lost crops or couldn’t plant at all – the largest single expenditure in the package – was deferred to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who will allocate the money in grants to states to compensate farmers for lost crops and income.
Prior to Monday night’s vote, Roy again urged the House to reject the bill, citing his concern with cost.
“I’m still troubled that we’re poised to spend $19 billion that’s not paid for when we’re racking up $100 million an hour in national debt,” Roy said. “At some point, before it is too late, Congress will get serious about restraining out-of-control spending.”
Republican Rep. Neal Dunn, whose Panama City-area district was hammered by Michael and is struggling in recovery, said Roy’s concern for the national debt is misplaced.
“Are you actually willing to make an empty gesture about balancing the federal budget on the backs of Americans who have lost everything? Are you willing to force the airmen of Tyndall, the Marines at Camp Lejeune, to halt the work to repair their bases because they ran out of money over a month ago?” he fumed. “Are we willing to bankrupt them? Because a ‘no’ vote today does exactly that.”
Florida Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott said it was time for Congress to shelve “political games” and do its job.
“It’s long overdue,” Scott said in a statement. “Unfortunately, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past five months up here, it’s that Washington is broken. Our communities are hurting, and this process took way too long. Political games were more important than helping Americans, and that’s wrong. But I’m glad it’s finally done.”
State officials joined the chorus of Floridians thanking Congress for finally reaching a deal.
“After waiting 236 days since Hurricane Michael made landfall, Panhandle residents will finally see necessary Congressional relief to help with rebuilding and recovery from this devastating storm,” Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said in a statement.
Gov. Ron DeSantis called it a “huge victory for Floridians.”
DeSantis also acknowledged U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s Monday announcement that the federal government will kick in $60 million to elevate a 6.5-mile section of the 91-year-old Tamiami Trail, or U.S. 41.
“Combined with the $40 million I requested from the Florida Legislature, the project is now fully funded,” DeSantis said in a tweet. “Elevating the Tamiami Trail will allow for an additional 75 to 80 billion gallons of water a day to flow south into the Everglades and Florida Bay.”