After several Panhandle county commissions, including Franklin’s, voiced strong opposition, members of a state Senate panel have adjusted legislation that some feared would allow Tallahassee to dictate how counties’ RESTORE Act money would be spent.
The adjustments were approved with only one dissenting vote at Tuesday’s Appropriations Committee and largely satisfied concerns over an amendment to a state Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) bill, SB 1024, that was added Friday. That amendment would create a quasi-public corporation and empower it to manage 75 percent of all dollars the state attorney general gets for economic loss Florida suffered from the oil spill.
Franklin County Commissioner Pinki Jackel was joined by representatives from Escambia and Wakulla counties in speaking at the Appropriations meeting against state control of RESTORE Act funds.
County commissioners voted unanimously at a Monday special meeting to send Jackel to Tallahassee, after a firestorm brewed over the proposed amendment, and its possible implications.
“This amendment sets criteria for projects, focusing on economic issues,” said Chairman Cheryl Sanders at the special meeting, held in the main courtroom of the county courthouse. “A non-elected board chooses the projects. That’s what my problem is with this.”
Commissioner Noah Lockley was more blunt, criticizing the 11th-hour change to the bill. “They wait to the last minute,” he said. “It’s crooked.”
The legislation, as it currently is designed, would create a quasi-public corporation that would handle the money the state receives from litigation against BP and Halliburton. On Saturday, Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a lawsuit seeking $5.5 billion from those companies for revenue the state lost due to the oil spill.
The proposed corporation — which would be called Triumph Gulf Coast Inc. — would be run by a five-member board. Florida’s governor, chief financial officer, attorneys general, Senate president and House speaker would each appoint one member to the board, which would not be a “unit or entity of state government,” according to the bill, and would not be subject to DEO’s “control, supervision, or direction.”
The bill would create a recovery fund for the eight disproportionately affected counties, which also include Bay, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton, and three-quarters of all funds the state receives through litigation would go to these counties — “including fines, penalties, fees, and settlements; and Any funds distributed to the state under (the RESTORE Act),” the bill stated.
It was this stipulation that vexed the Franklin County commissioners, who were all agreed that parts of the proposed bill was not in the county’s best interest.
“It’s a major reallocation of controlled funding. It’s something everybody’s concerned with,” said Jackel.
She told her colleagues the bill would shift priority for funded projects away from environmental restoration towards economic development, and would give priority to big-ticket projects, and to those at military bases and tech research facilities, all of which would be of little benefit to Franklin County.
“They have set the criteria so high that Franklin County will never qualify for funding for any of these awards. They’re shutting us out” she said. “They’re looking for a local match. There is no way that Franklin can match $5 million. We can hardly match a half-million dollars.
“I'm afraid all these other counties are going to get in line ahead of us, they’re going to be able to push,” said Jackel.
She also cited wording in the bill that targets “new high-growth industries. We do not want a new high-growth industry in Franklin County. Yes, we want jobs but we don’t want something that’s going to explode Franklin County.”
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, filed the amendment to create this corporation, but it was largely done at the direction of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. Detert offered assurances that the bill wouldn’t touch the counties’ RESTORE Act money.
“The amendment does not preempt federal law or change how the RESTORE Act works, so everyone can stop talking about that,” she said, adding, “The state is not looking to steal federal funds.”
Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson was among those to speak at Tuesday’s commitee hearing. “We don’t believe there should be any preemption on what happens under the RESTORE Act,” he said.
Robinson also chairs the 23-county Gulf Consortium, which is working to develop a spending plan for RESTORE Act money, but he said he spoke only as a commissioner because the consortium hadn’t yet discussed the legislation.
He said the changes approved by the appropriations committee assuaged his concerns. “It answers most of the things that we’re here for,” he said.
The most important change adds the sentence: “Notwithstanding any other provision under this act, this act shall not affect any funds distributed to any county under (the RESTORE Act).”
But some on the committee — State Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee and Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale — felt the legislation needed more clarity. Montford said he didn’t understand why all reference to the RESTORE Act wasn’t struck from the bill.
“I have some serious reservations. I think it needs a tremendous amount of clarity,” he said.
Meanwhile, Gaetz, who helped craft the legislation, praised the committee for passing it.
“If the state receives funds from the Attorney General’s suit or from any other source, I don’t want the money frittered away or wasted,” he said in a statement. “We need to treat such funds as an inheritance to be carefully invested and used to benefit our economy and our environment.”
Gaetz also noted the committee discussed the scandals that have accompanied BP money in Okaloosa County, where one official stole more than $1 million in BP funds and later committed suicide. And the state’s auditor general has cited the Okaloosa County Commission and the Tourist Development Council with 60 cases of illegal handling of BP money.
At the meeting, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, told county representatives that if they want to know why this measure was created they need to look in the mirror.
“All has not been well in the disbursement of BP settlement money,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, also has weighed in on the situation, saying he wrote a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew reaffirming the clear intent of the RESTORE Act, which clearly specifies that 75 percent of Florida's BP fine money must be allocated directly to the eight hardest hit Northwest Florida counties.
“The RESTORE Act is clear and unambiguous in its intent that the lion’s share of Florida’s BP fine money go directly to the eight hardest hit counties,” he said in a statement. “Our letter to Secretary Lew reaffirms that North and Northwest Florida’s congressional delegation stands shoulder-to-shoulder with county officials in accordance with federal law. These RESTORE Act funds are a critical lifeline for our coastal communities and no one will know better than the counties, themselves, how to restore their local economies and ecosystems.”
On the House side, companion legislation (HB 7007) has passed out of committee, so the new amendment would need to be proposed on the floor, which concerns state Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City.
He said a change this big involving this much money needs to be discussed and voted on in a committee before going to the floor. He said not only was the amendment just filed; he hasn’t even heard the five-member, quasi-public corporation idea being discussed.
“And I live in one of those areas of concern, and if this is the first time I’ve heard about it, I can guarantee you nobody else has really heard about it either,” he said.
Patronis said this legislation puts another bureaucracy in place, and that makes him uncomfortable. He said that, even if the intention is to deal with money gained only through the economic loss litigation, he doesn’t want to see government grown. And, if it does grow, he wants to see a lot more debate before the measure goes to the floor.
“It hasn’t been through a single committee in the House of Representatives, which to me is very concerning,” he said, later adding, “I get real hesitant when we grow government. I really do.”