Georgia House approves $470M to fund hurricane relief
ATLANTA (AP) — The Georgia House overwhelmingly approved $470 million in emergency aid and tax credits Thursday to help communities devastated by Hurricane Michael, citing a dire need for help with ruined cotton fields and shattered timberland across a broad swath of the state.
The aid money sought by Gov. Nathan Deal passed the House on the third day of a special session called after the storm inflicted severe damage in the heart of Georgia’s agricultural economy. The funding still must pass the state Senate.
The House voted 162-1 to approve a $270 million aid package. The bill adds $69 million in state matching funds required for Georgia to receive disaster aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It also includes $55 million to help farmers saddled with production loans and destroyed crops that would have repaid them. Another $20 million will help owners of commercial timberland clear broken trees.
A separate bill for $200 million in tax credits to help commercial timber growers replant vast acreage damaged by the storm also won House approval 157-2.
Lawmakers acknowledged the money won’t come close to covering Georgia’s losses.
“This may well just be a start to what we need to do to help our folks across the state,” said House Appropriation Chairman Terry England, a Republican from Auburn. “In some areas, we know there are some immediate needs.”
Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black blames the hurricane for more than $1.6 billion in ruined crops from pecans and cotton to corn and squash. The Georgia Forestry Commission estimates timber losses exceeded $762 million.
Georgians also claimed $696 million in insured losses to homes, businesses and vehicles — a higher cost than the state’s combined losses claimed from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Irma last year.
“The timing of this storm could not have been worse,” said Rep. Sam Watson, a Republican from Moultrie and a farmer. “The timing of our harvest, the timing of paying back notes, the timing of asking for help from the federal government could not be worse because of holidays and the election.”
Watson said having the legislature act now rather than wait until its regular session in January has given hope and encouragement to his constituents in southwest Georgia.
The tax credit for timberland is intended to encourage Georgia landowners to replant about 2.3 million acres (9,300 square kilometers) damaged by the storm. Farmers are also eligible for the credit to replace decimated pecan orchards.
Landowners in the 28 Georgia counties included in Deal’s emergency declaration from the hurricane would be eligible for the tax credits. They must request approval for the credits before the end of 2019.
State officials estimate the tax credits would cost $75 million in the 2020 fiscal year that starts July 1, then $95 million the following fiscal year. The credits would be capped at $200 million total.