$470M in hurricane relief heading to vote in Georgia House

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The Georgia House is expected to vote Thursday on proposals for $470 million in relief for damage from Hurricane Michael as lawmakers work rapidly to resolve a special session called by Gov. Nathan Deal.

House committees Wednesday approved $270 million in storm-related funding that includes emergency aid and debris cleanup while also advancing $200 million in tax incentives to encourage timber and pecan growers to replant vast acreage destroyed in southern Georgia.

Deal told lawmakers much of the cleanup and recovery money will be reimbursed by the federal government, though it's unknown how long that might take. He said farmers whose crops were devastated need immediate assistance, and timber smashed by the storm must be removed to keep heaps of dead wood from becoming fuel for possible wildfires.

"Our state has been struck by a disaster unlike any that we have really seen," Deal told the House Appropriations Committee. "The losses that are sustained and will have to be dealt with are of a magnitude that most of us have a hard time imagining."

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.

Unwilling to wait until the legislature returns for its regular session in January, Deal ordered a special session that began Tuesday. Legislative leaders in the House and Senate are trying to wrap up their short agenda in five days.

Deal wants $69 million in additional funds to pay the state's share for disaster response costs as well as debris removal being overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers. There's also $55 million proposed for emergency assistance to farmers in counties damaged by the storm, plus another $20 million in emergency aid to assist cleanup by timberland owners.

The aid money covers just a fraction of the costs inflicted by the storm, which crossed Florida into southwest Georgia as a powerful Category 3 hurricane.

"Obviously we cannot pay for all the losses," Deal told lawmakers Wednesday. "But we think we can afford to do this."

Lawmakers say higher-than-expected revenues this year should enable the state to pay for hurricane relief without dipping into budget reserves.

The House will also vote Thursday on tax incentives aimed at helping landowners replant trees lost to the storm. About 2.3 million acres (9,300 sq. kilometers) were damaged by the storm. Landowners would have to request approval for the credit before the end of 2019.

State officials estimate the tax credit 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.

Also Thursday, the full House is scheduled to vote on renewing Georgia's sales tax exemption on jet fuel. The Senate killed the perk, worth roughly $40 million, earlier this year to punish Delta Air Lines for ending fare discounts for members of the National Rifle Association.

Deal salvaged the tax break with an executive order over the summer, but lawmakers must ratify the perk or airlines will owe fuel taxes retroactively to Aug. 1. Republican House Speaker David Ralston has said the tax perk faces a "tough climb."

Any of the three measures that pass the House on Thursday will still need approval by the state Senate.

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