Florida’s Hurricane Irma-battered agriculture industry, growing anxious as it awaits federal disaster relief, could land some help from the state House as part of a tax-cut package.
The House Ways & Means Committee, which is putting together a package, reviewed three measures Wednesday intended to help the industry, which sustained an estimated $2.5 billion in damages from the deadly September hurricane.
Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who owns a citrus grove, outlined a proposal that could offer one-time tax refunds on fencing and building materials for non-residential farm buildings. Also, a proposal would offer refunds on state and local taxes applied to fuel used to transport agriculture products from farms to processing and packaging facilities.
Another idea under consideration would value at salvage level machinery that has gone idle at citrus packing and processing facilities because of Hurricane Irma or because of citrus greening disease, which has ravaged the industry the past decade.
“If you have a packing house that is shut down, some of these packing houses would have employed 100 people, maybe more,” Albritton said. “If you hope and pray like I do that we’ll somehow, some way soon we’re going to find the bottom of citrus production in the state and we’ll turn it around and start growing again, those packing houses would have the opportunity to be operational again. If they go in foreclosure and the bank owns them, what’s the good for the property owner.”
While price tags have not been affixed to the proposals and growers maintain that a stalled federal disaster-aid package will provide more relief, Albritton said after the committee meeting that the damage has affected farmers and others in the supply chain.
“In the shape that we’re in right now, every penny matters,” Albritton said.
The agriculture-relief proposals were among 78 recommendations rolled out of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness. The committee was created in the wake of Irma, a Category 4 storm that pounded the state Sept. 10 and 11 and left 84 people dead.
Adam Basford, director of state affairs for the Florida Farm Bureau, hopes the proposals will get further consideration.
“What we can do here at the state is help farmers stretch the dollars they can in recovery,” Basford said. “They’re not huge, life-altering impacts, but they do help farmers stretch the dollars they do have to spend to recover.”
The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs has estimated damages to the citrus industry at $761 million, the nursery industry at $624 million and the cattle industry at $237.5 million. The sugar industry has been estimated at sustaining $383 million in losses, while vegetable and non-citrus fruit growers suffered $180 million in damages.
Meanwhile, talk of federal relief as part of an $81 billion disaster-relief package approved by the U.S. House on Dec. 21, has fallen by the wayside as Congress struggles to remain open amid battles over a short-term funding bill.
“Maybe they’ll get through the politics of the day up there and look at the larger picture,” Albritton said. “I’m still optimistic and hopeful that we’ll be able to do something that is bipartisan out of D.C.”
Gov. Rick Scott talked Wednesday by phone with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell regarding disaster relief, according to the governor’s office.
The state House’s overall tax-cut package is likely to meet or exceed $180 million in tax and fee cuts proposed by Scott.
The committee previously heard proposals such as further reducing a business-lease tax, eliminating sales taxes on diapers and holding sales-tax “holidays” for small businesses after Thanksgiving and at the start of the hurricane season.
Scott has requested cuts come by reducing driver-license fees and holding back-to-school and disaster-preparedness tax holidays.
by Jim Turner, News Service of Florida
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