By JIM TURNER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Efforts by Panhandle lawmakers to steer BP settlement money toward counties most impacted by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill aren’t out of the legislative mire yet.
But lawmakers believe they can work out differences about how the money can be spent.
Both the House and Senate are now advancing measures that would allocate $300 million of the $400 million received last year to the Gulf Coast counties — Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Wakulla and Walton — hit most severely by the disaster.
And the separate proposals would also send to those counties, through a non-profit trust fund, three-fourths of the remainder of the $2 billion the state is expected to receive for economic damages associated with the disaster, which dumped millions of gallons of oil less than 100 miles off of Florida’s coast.
Yet lawmakers also acknowledge a lot of work is ahead.
“There is still some distance between the two bills, but that’s what this process is all about,” said Rep. Jay Trumbull, a Panama City Republican who is chairman of the House Select Committee on Triumph Gulf Coast.
The House panel on Thursday voted to support its proposal (PCB SOT 17-01a), which creates more guidelines on how the money can be used than a plan being considered by the Senate.
The House measure spells out that the non-profit Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc., set up within the Department of Economic Opportunity, can use the settlement money to market Northwest Florida and to support broad economic-development projects.
The non-profit would have to ensure that each county receives 6 percent of the money, and would have to post online details of any project or program two weeks before cash awards are made.
“The goal is we’re looking holistically at the entire region,” Trumbull said.
A second House proposal backed by the select committee (PCB SOT 17-02a), similar to a Senate plan, would create the trust fund.
Meanwhile, a Senate committee on Monday moved forward with a measure (SB 364) more reflective of Senate President Joe Negron’s desire for a less bureaucratic approach.
Under the Senate plan, the non-profit would work with local governments on economic development, projects, grants for educational programs and infrastructure projects.
“We still have a ways to go,” Senate budget chief Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said Monday. “Part of that process is to negotiate with those folks at the other end down there. If we give them everything they want right up front then there is no reason for them to negotiate.”
The House’s proposal no longer includes a provision that would have required the Joint Legislative Budget Commission to sign off on the non-profit’s spending.
Trumbull said eliminating the budget commission approval should alleviate most of the Senate’s concerns.
“We’re not allowing Tallahassee’s hands to still be on these dollars,” he said. “These are the Panhandle’s dollars.”