Is Florida on hook for $200 million to help feds finish Lake O dike?

A Trump administration budget that appears to commit Florida to paying $200 million to expedite repairs on the Herbert Hoover Dike has some lawmakers scratching their heads and others critical of a project they said should be paid for with federal dollars.

Reconstruction of the aging dike, an earthen barrier holding back Lake Okeechobee from flooding Glades-area communities, is a $96 million line item in President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget released this week.

The president highlights it as an “innovative partnership” with Florida that will provide another $66 million in federal dollars if the state ponies up $50 million on top of the $50 million Florida lawmakers approved during the 2017 legislative session for dike repairs.

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Gov. Rick Scott, who personally lobbied Trump for dike money during a New Year’s Eve event at the president’s Mar-a-Lago Club on Palm Beach, heralded the payment plan in a statement released Monday.

“President Trump’s budget announcement today is great news for Florida and solidifies his commitment to me to secure the federal funding needed for critically important repairs to the federally operated Herbert Hoover Dike,” he said.

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But a footnote in the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget also says Florida’s total commitment is “to provide $200 million.” Where that number came from seemed a mystery Tuesday.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who is expecting Scott to challenge him this fall for his Senate seat, called the commitment “absurd.”

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“Floridians shouldn’t have to pay a dime to finish the dike,” Nelson said in a statement. “Congress just gave the Army Corps all the money it needs to fully fund this project and get it done by 2022.”

On Friday, Trump signed into law a $10.4 billion allocation for disaster assistance and Army Corps of Engineers projects that Nelson, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., asked in a joint letter be used to pay for all of the remaining dike construction.

“As you know, the dike remains listed as Dam Safety Action Classification I, meaning it is at imminent risk of failure and poses a serious threat to lives and property,” the letter said.

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, agreed Tuesday that the $10.4 billion should pay for expedited dike repairs.

“As far as we’re concerned, Congress has already given the Army Corps all the money it needs to get the project done without Florida contributing any additional money,” Mast’s communications director, Brad Stewart, wrote in an email.

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Corps spokesman John Campbell said Tuesday afternoon he was still trying to find out how the $200 million made it into the Corps’ budget document and what it means.

But Scott’s office issued a statement late Tuesday questioning any demand for $200 million.

“Contrary to what some members of Congress are claiming, the federal government has not asked Florida to commit $200 million towards this federal project. That claim is absurd,” said the statement from Communications Director John Tupps.

Since 2005, the Corps has spent about $940 million on improvements to the 143-mile dike, whose construction dates to the 1930s. To speed up repairs so they are completed by 2022, the Corps would need an estimated $200 million per year, including $212 million in the fiscal year 2019 budget.

Last year, Scott asked Florida lawmakers for $200 million to expedite dike repairs. The Legislature approved $50 million. He is making another $50 million request this year.

“For decades, Congress has failed to address this critical project,” said Scott’s press secretary, Lauren Schenone, in a statement. “Governor Scott is the first governor in history to fight for state funding to jump-start the critical repairs to the federally operated Herbert Hoover Dike.”

The additional money has the support of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who lauded the request following an October announcement.

On Tuesday, Negron spokeswoman Katherine Betta said he still supports the additional $50 million for a total Florida commitment of $100 million.

“He certainly would remain open to additional funds in future years if needed to ensure this project is completed and communities near Lake Okeechobee are protected,” Betta said.

Concern over the dike’s ability to contain Lake Okeechobee was heightened last fall after a wet summer and September’s Hurricane Irma left the lake level at 17.2 feet above sea level. The Corps, which prefers to keep the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level, begins daily inspections of the dike’s vulnerable south side at 17 feet.

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