By JIM TURNER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
With the first check — for $300 million — on the way, Northwest Florida leaders know they must wisely invest the money across the region to ensure state lawmakers keep the BP settlement cash tap open.
After Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation Friday, the non-profit organization Triumph Gulf Coast is expected to eventually handle three-quarters of the $2 billion the state will receive over the next 13 years from BP in a settlement stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Triumph Gulf Coast board members said Monday the Legislature can always alter future payments if they fail to properly make economic-development and educational investments with the first batch of money.
“If we do a poor job with the first $300 (million) that’s not going to help us down the road,” said Allan Bense, a former state House speaker from Panama City who also chairs Triumph Gulf Coast. “There is $1.2 billion still out there. I’m mindful of the fact that the Legislature can pull that $1.2 billion. They can get that future money.”
Bense’s comments came as Gov. Rick Scott conducted the first of two ceremonial bill signings on Monday — in Panama City and Pensacola — for measures (HB 7077 and HB 7079) tied to the BP settlement. Scott signed the bills on Friday.
Scott said by wisely investing the money in infrastructure and education, Panhandle counties should be able to compete for manufacturing jobs against other Southern states.
“People love to be in the Panhandle, we should win those types of jobs,” Scott said. “On top of that, we should be able to get good back-office jobs, regional offices and corporate offices. All of these are things we have opportunity to do if we are wise to how we spend our money.”
The House and Senate spent much of this year’s regular legislative session battling over how the money could be used before ultimately reaching agreement.
Rep. Jay Trumbull, a Panama City Republican who oversaw the issue in the House, expressed optimism Monday.
“I’m very pleased with the way to the board is set up,” Trumbull said. “This is going to be essentially a business entity. They’re a governmental entity, but the fact that they’re going to have the ability to look at each individual project. I truly believe that in the next 10 to 15 years, the Panhandle you see today, we’re going to see extraordinary growth directly because of Triumph.”
In addition to the money, the measures set minimums for how much each county — Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Wakulla and Walton — will receive and expands the Triumph board from five to seven members to provide more representation from less-populated counties.
Jorge Gonzalez, CEO of The St. Joe Company, said the money will help the region make up for years of economic development hindered by the devastating spill, which dumped millions of gallons of oil less than 100 miles off the Florida coast just as the region was emerging from the recession.
“It’s been a long seven years for many of us,” Gonzalez said. “This legislation is about creating jobs. It’s not about building buildings.”
Bense would like to see the money eventually help attract a large company such as Boeing.
“That’s what I would love, but in the meantime you have to hit singles and doubles,” Bense said.
However, no funding decisions or project vetting will be done until House and Senate leaders make their appointments to bring the Triumph board to seven, he said.
“I want to allocate as much as I can to economic development,” Bense said. “I don’t foresee us funding boat ramps or gun ranges, or things like that. I think those are county and city obligations.”