Florida officials use onset of storm season to blast Washington

TALLAHASSEE _ As the first tropical storm of the season bore down on Florida Thursday, Republican state officials seized the moment to blast Washington and warn that the required budget cuts to federal programs could impede the state’s ability to respond to hurricanes or floods.

Gov. Rick Scott had just mentioned Tropical Storm Andrea at his briefing with reporters Thursday morning when he launched into a critique of the federal budget storm that is causing the Florida National Guard to order 993 of its full-time staff to go to a four-day work week beginning July 1.

Known as sequestration, the across-the-board cuts were agreed to between President Obama and the Republican-controlled Congress in 2011 to resolve the debt ceiling standoff. Now, Scott, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford have written to Congress and the Department of Defense asking them to exempt National Guard staff from the mandatory cuts because of Florida’s hurricane season.

“It doesn’t make any sense why they’re doing it this way,’’ Scott said, adding that the defense department could have excluded the National Guard from the budget cuts. “I’m very concerned about our preparedness. It will take more days to be up to speed.”

Forecasters predict there will be 13 to 20 named storms with winds of 39 mph or higher this hurricane season, including seven to 11 hurricanes.

With every landfall comes an army of first responders. Florida’s National Guard, whom the governor deploys, marshals supplies, convoys equipment, directs traffic and serves as the community patrol in the event of a disaster. Under the federal Stafford Act, the state is reimbursed for all costs incurred by the guard in a disaster, no matter how many hours they work.

Florida’s National Guard staff received furlough notices last week, ordering them to shorten their hours from 9½ -hour days — with every other Monday off — to eight-hour days with every Monday off, said spokesman Thomas Kielbasa, a master sergeant. The furloughs apply only to technicians, the full-time civilian employees of the defense department, and require them to take 11 days of unpaid leave between July 1 and Sept. 30, Kielbasa said.

Because the furloughs don’t take effect for another three weeks, the budget cuts won’t affect Florida’s response to Tropical Storm Andrea if it causes major damage, Kielbasa said. About 8,000 National Guard troopers could immediately be mobilized in the event of an emergency, Kielbasa said, except those who “may have to step in and fill some of the roles” of the people on furlough later. He said the furlough will not impact troopers serving overseas.

Still, legislative leaders used the event to sound the alarm.

“This is a disproportionately Florida issue because the furloughs are coming just at the time that hurricane season is starting,’’ Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in an interview. “It seems to me this is one of the reasons why across-the-board cuts or the kinds of cuts expressed in sequestration are nonsensical.”

Gaetz has asked his staff to compile a list of all programs in Florida that are affected by the budget cuts and hopes to get it by next week. He and Weatherford said they have no plans to call a special session of the Legislature to replace the federal money, but want to increase the pressure on Florida’s congressional delegation to find a way.

“We’re just trying to get the attention of the federal government,’’ Weatherford said Thursday. “It’s going to have an impact on our hurricane season.”

The cuts will hit all areas of Florida’s National Guard, from trainers to aircraft maintenance personnel to administrators, Kielbasa said, and could have the greatest impact on the maintenance of helicopters and vehicles.

Gaetz said those who have full-time jobs with the National Guard and return home from combat this summer also could be affected by the cuts.

“Isn’t it the height of irony to say, ‘Thank you for your service and, by the way, we’re cutting your pay when you’re coming home from a war zone,’ ’’ he said, adding that the president’s golf vacation could have been cut from 18 to nine holes to save money.

“Cuts in federal spending are not a bad thing, but the mindlessness of sequestration is,’’ he said.

Miami Herald staff writer Rochelle Koff contributed to this report.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

Related stories from Miami Herald