WASHINGTON — As lawmakers were poised to vote on a $36 billion disaster relief package, top Florida officials on Wednesday implored the state’s congressional delegation to secure $2.5 billion more for the battered agriculture industry.
But as Gov. Rick Scott made the request, he found himself tangled in a dispute over debris removal with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston.
Scott arrived in Washington with Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who said Hurricane Irma had left an already-strained citrus industry in shambles. They pushed for $2.5 billion even as the House planned to vote today on the larger spending package.
"I know that’s a heavy lift," Putnam said. "But time is of the essence for supporting growers who have between 50 and 100 percent of their crop on the ground."
The state estimates the citrus industry has suffered more than $760 million in losses, with other crops making up the balance of the $2.5 billion. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, has already drafted an amendment for the $2.5 billion, though it was unclear if House leadership will be responsive. He and others called for a unified front.
"This is not a partisan issue," said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland. "Please, let us stick together."
If the effort failed, lawmakers said they would try again as Congress is expected to approve more rounds of disaster relief after hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and now the wildfires ravaging California’s wine country.
Despite calls for bipartisan muscle — Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio are also pushing for money — tension filled the room.
Debris remains scattered across Florida and Wasserman Schulz accused Scott of thwarting removal efforts, warning that if another storm arrived the debris could become "projectiles." She said Scott’s administration was not passing along to FEMA local requests to negotiate deals with debris removal companies at market rates.
Haulers have been going to communities that can pay more money rather than the lower amounts set in pre-storm deals. The federal government picks up 90 percent of the cost.
"I have tried to reach you and I have gotten no response from you," Wasserman Schultz said.
"If you’ve contacted me, I don’t have any evidence that you contacted me," Scott said.
"I have your cell phone number, governor, and I’ve called you on it. And I’ve also contacted your office," Wasserman Schultz replied.
Scott, a Republican, said that existing contracts must be honored. "I’m always going to stand on the side of taxpayers and consumers, not on the side of somebody who wants to make extra money after a disaster."