- Associated Press - Thursday, October 12, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - The Florida Legislature finds itself dealing with not only the aftermath of Hurricane Irma but also the impact of Hurricane Maria.

State economist Amy Baker told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday that damage from Irma is forecast to be anywhere from $25.4 to $45.9 billion.

Baker said the state’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research arrived at that figure by taking the damage costs from Hurricanes Andrew in 1992 and Wilma in 2005 and forecasting what those would have been had those storms happened this year. At $26.5 billion in damage, Andrew was the fourth costliest hurricane to hit the United States.

The state has already allocated $141.7 million in recovery costs, with the largest expenditure being $36 million for debris removal. Baker hopes to have a revised number along with revenues that could be generated from rebuilding when the Legislature’s regular 60-day session begins Jan. 9.

Before Irma, the state was forecast to have a $52 million surplus. Because of the hurricane and additional costs to the state’s pension fund, the state has a shortfall of $145.1 million.

The forecast drawn up by Baker and other economists also shows that the state could be facing a $1.6 billion shortfall in three years largely because of increased public school enrollment, rising Medicaid costs and state worker benefits.

“We are already at a position of three negative years, and revenues are insufficient to meet projected needs,” Baker said.

Officials are also continuing to assess how the influx of Puerto Rico residents displaced by Hurricane Maria will affect the state. More than 32,000 people have arrived in Florida since Oct. 3, with more on the way.

Nearly a million Florida residents are Puerto Rican, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Orange County has 17.7 percent of the state’s Puerto Rican population, followed by Miami-Dade (10.6) and Hillsborough counties (10.5)

Democrats in the Legislature have called on Gov. Rick Scott to open more disaster relief centers and help those arriving in the state to get quicker access to Medicaid and other assistance programs.

Kerri Wyland, a spokeswoman for Scott, said the governor did not meet with President Trump during his trip to Washington on Wednesday and Thursday. But Scott did meet with members of Florida’s congressional delegation and Puerto Rico Congresswoman Jenniffer González Colón to discuss efforts to support Puerto Rico, Wyland said.

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