TALLAHASSEE -- Time after time since taking office, Gov. Rick Scott has boasted of rejecting billions of dollars from the federal government. Now, Washington has turned the tables, shutting down Scott’s plea for financial aid in a move that almost instantly took on political tones.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency refused Scott’s request for a presidential declaration of disaster for damage caused by Tropical Storm Isaac, declining to provide $26.9 million in aid to hard-hit counties.
Scott moved this week to appeal the decision, but not before the issue was cast in a political light, highlighting Florida’s importance in the presidential election and the rocky relationship between Washington and the Sunshine State.
“Today, I asked the Division of Emergency Management to appeal the denial to ensure Florida communities have the full capability to recover from Isaac’s damage,” Scott wrote to FEMA’s director, Craig Fugate, this week. The letter states that the cost of damage to Monroe, Broward, Palm Beach, Collier, Bay, Escambia, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Franklin and Martin counties is actually about $10 million worse than originally thought, at about $36.6 million.
The Republican Party of Florida quickly blasted President Barack Obama for not “redistributing” money to hurricane victims.
Scott originally wrote to Obama and Fugate to request aid about two weeks after Isaac — which became a hurricane days after sideswiping Florida — caused flooding in Palm Beach County and the Panhandle. Fugate, who served as director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management from 2001-09, responded this week to let Scott know his request had been denied.
Fugate’s letter stated that the damage was not severe enough to require federal aid, and basically argued that Florida could handle the costs on its own.
The rejection is the latest dust-up in a tenuous relationship between Scott and the federal government, even as Florida stands as a key swing state crucial to the outcome of the presidential election.
Shortly after coming into office, Scott rejected more than $2 billion in federal funds aimed at building a high-speed rail line. Obama criticized Scott for the snub, saying he thought it was “wrong.”
Scott helped support the U.S. Supreme Court challenge to Obama’s federal healthcare reform this year. When the Supreme Court upheld most of the law in June, Scott took to the airwaves to say Florida would not accept billions of federal dollars to expand Florida’s Medicaid rolls.
Scott also has battled Washington over early voting changes and Florida’s plan to purge noncitizens from the voter rolls.
Though he has not played a major role in the presidential contest, Scott is supporting Republican candidate Mitt Romney, saying Florida needs a “federal partner” to help create more jobs.
The Republican Party of Florida quickly parlayed Scott’s spat with FEMA into a critique of Obama, who could effectively seal his reelection bid by winning Florida’s 29 electoral votes.
“Earlier this week we learned that President Obama ‘believes in redistribution,’ but this doesn’t seem to apply to Florida or the victims of Hurricane Isaac,” state GOP chairman Lenny Curry said in a statement.
Scott’s spokeswoman, Melissa Sellers, also chimed in: “It is disappointing that the president would reject one-time disaster assistance for those who sustained losses from Isaac, which has the bipartisan support from officials across the state.”
Scott has pointed out that U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, both Democrats, supported the request for federal aid.
Asked if politics played a role in the decision, FEMA would only say that it determined Florida had the resources to pay for the damage on its own.
“Based on the information provided by the state, it was determined that the damages from this event were not of such severity and magnitude to be beyond the capabilities of the state, affected local governments and voluntary agencies,” said Mary Hudak, FEMA regional spokeswoman.
FEMA did provide disaster aid for Louisiana and Mississippi, which had significant flooding after Isaac. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal objected that the approved funding was not sufficient. On Friday, FEMA announced that it had approved a disaster declaration for Alabama, which also was hit by Isaac.
It’s the second time since June that FEMA has turned down Scott’s request for aid. After heavy rains caused flooding in the Florida Panhandle in early June, Scott wrote letters to FEMA and Obama requesting federal intervention.
FEMA turned down the request, prompting an appeal from Scott. That, also, was rejected.
Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at tolorunnipa@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter at @ToluseO.