The Florida Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday began weighing the financial and humanitarian implications of new state spending designed to aid Puerto Ricans who have evacuated to Florida in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

  • More than 73,000 arrivals to Florida from Puerto Rico since Oct. 3
  • Call for more money to local school boards to handle influx of new students
  • Proposal also floated to expand state's Medicaid program to uninsured evacuees

Calls for increased spending on affordable housing, public schools and hospitals have continued to mount in the weeks since the storm decimated much of Puerto Rico. Since Oct. 3, more than 73,000 people have arrived in Florida from the island; a majority of them are planning to settle in the state for the foreseeable future.

In an emotional speech, Sen. Victor Torres (D-Kissimmee) told his colleagues the anguish evacuees have already endured should not be compounded by inaction from Tallahassee.

"I ask you for appropriate action as if it were your family members who were suffering in the same circumstances," Torres told the committee as he fought to hold back tears.

Specifically, Torres said the state should give local school boards extra money to handle an influx of new students. And he cautioned the legislature against diverting cash from Florida's affordable housing trust fund, which could help subsidize apartments for low-income evacuees. Over the past decade, lawmakers have taken more than $1 billion from the fund, primarily to help bridge budget deficits.

A proposal has also been floated to expand the state's Medicaid program to uninsured evacuees, with an uncertain price tag.

Because the state is already facing an almost certain budget deficit due Hurricane Irma's impacts, lawmakers could be hard-pressed to come up with funding to help the Puerto Rican evacuees. As it stands, the federal government has agreed to reimburse the state for three 'Disaster Relief Centers' established by Gov. Rick Scott's administration.

While viewed by some as a model for future collaboration between Washington and Tallahassee on evacuee assistance, the Senate's appropriations chairman is chastising Scott for not having first consulted with the legislature.

"They are United States citizens, they are our brothers and sisters," the chairman, Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) said. "The question, the only question that we're raising is that it needs to be a collective decision entered into by the legislature as well as the governor."

For Torres, however, time is of the essence. He's urging legislative leaders to convene a special session to address aid to evacuees this fall, rather than wait until the regular session, which begins in January.

"We need to prepare," Torres said. "I don't want to have people find themselves homeless out in the streets, because this is a crisis, and it's a crisis because our federal government failed to respond."