Florida lawmakers should provide financial help to the agriculture industry to aid its recovery from Hurricane Irma, the Senate president said Friday.
Without putting a price tag on the state’s contribution, Senate President Joe Negron appeared to favor tax cuts and mitigation measures rather than loans. He pointed to major damage sustained by citrus growers but also said assistance should go to other parts of the agriculture industry.
“I do think the effect of the hurricane was so catastrophic to the citrus industry that it merits the government, the state government, partnering with the industry to make sure that they can continue to thrive,” Negron said during an interview with The News Service of Florida.
Negron said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is slated to become the next Senate president, and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, are expected to work on the issue.
Some lawmakers have already started to advance their own hurricane-recovery proposals for the 2018 legislative session, which starts in January.
The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in early October released an estimate that the agriculture industry had sustained $2.5 billion in damage from Hurricane Irma, with $761 million in citrus-industry losses.
But many lawmakers think the losses will be much higher than the October projection.
Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who is a citrus grower, has outlined several proposed tax exemptions for the industry as part of recommendations submitted to the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness.
Albritton’s proposals include tax exemptions for material used to repair or replace damaged fences and structures and for fuel used to transport crops during an emergency. He also called for a reduction in the tangible personal property tax for farm equipment affected by the storm.
Meanwhile, Rep. Michael Grant, R-Port Charlotte, has suggested a tax exemption for the purchase of generators used on farms.
Negron said he doesn’t anticipate that hurricane-relief spending will displace other legislative priorities in the upcoming 60-day session.
“I still think there will be room for environmental priorities, educational priorities,” Negron said. “I don’t think the hurricane spending will necessarily mean that there are other things that simply can’t be done.”
Gov. Rick Scott has asked for $21 million to help citrus growers as part of his budget requests for the 2018 legislative session.
Scott wants the money to include $10 million for citrus research, $4 million for marketing and $7 million for post-storm relief.
Irma made landfall Sept. 10 in the Keys and in Collier County before plowing up the state, including causing extensive damage in agricultural areas.
Along with the projected $761 million in citrus-industry losses, the October report from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimated nursery-industry losses from Irma at almost $624 million. The cattle industry damage assessment was $237.5 million, while the dairy industry was estimated to have $11.8 million in losses.
The sugar industry appeared to have $383 million in damage, with an estimated 534,324 acres affected. Vegetable and fruit growers — excluding citrus — were projected to have $180 million in damage, with an estimated 163,679 acres impacted by the storm.
The storm damages compounded misery for the citrus industry, which has struggled for a decade with citrus greening, an incurable bacterial disease.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has projected that Florida’s citrus industry is on pace to grow 27 percent fewer oranges and 40 percent fewer grapefruit than in the past growing season.
State leaders, such as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, have been disappointed that Florida’s farmers and ranchers haven’t been addressed in a series of congressional disaster-relief package put together in response to Irma, Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and California wildfires.
by Jim Turner, News Service of Florida