March 19, 2019 - 9:00am
Rural Panhandle counties recovering from Hurricane Michael would be in line to receive settlement money from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, under a bill advanced Monday in the Senate.
The Commerce and Tourism Committee backed a proposal (SB 1162) that would direct to inland rural counties about $5.3 million a year, which is 5 percent of the annual payments the state receives in a settlement with BP over impacts from the deadly offshore oil-rig explosion.
As lawmakers begin moving forward this week with the process of drawing up a 2019-2020 budget, Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, said the state needs to “step up our game” to help areas of the Panhandle that sustained severe damage in the Oct. 10 hurricane.
“We’re trying to help where we can,” added Sen. Travis Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican who chairs the Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee. “I know the budget is tight this year. But also, this bill goes one step further to help that area out.”
The non-profit organization Triumph Gulf Coast was created by the Legislature to oversee three-fourths of the $2 billion that Florida is expected to receive. Triumph is required to direct the money to infrastructure and workforce-training programs in the coastal counties of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla. Florida is slated to get $106.7 million a year through 2033, with Triumph Gulf Coast receiving about $80 million, according to a Senate staff analysis.
The measure advanced Monday by Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, would create the Northwest Florida Rural Inland Affected Counties Recovery Fund in the state Department of Economic Opportunity. Money in the fund would assist infrastructure projects and workforce programs in inland counties.
The rural counties targeted by Gainer are Calhoun, Gadsden, Holmes, Jackson, Jefferson, Liberty and Washington. Gainer’s district includes Holmes, Jackson and Washington counties.
Jackson County Commissioner Jim Peacock said the money would help “enhance economic development.”
A similar proposal in the House (HB 191) has not been heard in committees.
The quest to pinpoint more of the BP money toward the Panhandle counties comes as lawmakers have flooded the legislative process with bills that would bring money to the storm-battered region.
Gainer is also part of a separate Senate effort (SB 1610) to provide $315 million that would make loans available to local governments still reeling from Michael and would set up a task force to determine additional state assistance for the region.
But the fate of hurricane funding proposals could brush up against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request for $625 million next year as the first part of a four-year, $2.5 billion outline of environmental projects. DeSantis’ proposal includes Everglades restoration and efforts to offset a repeat of the algae blooms that plagued Southwest Florida and Southeast Florida in 2018.
Last week, House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, called DeSantis’ environmental request “very ambitious.”
“We’re trying hard to look at what we feel of those priorities, which ones of them are going to have a more immediate impact and try to prioritize them,” Oliva said. “We’re trying our best to get as close as we can get.”
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, earlier this month said DeSantis’ environmental proposal may be “pushing” the limits of a budget expected to be taxed because of the response to Hurricane Michael.