Florida Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Latvala declared Wednesday that negotiations to pass legislation to bring $300 million in BP dollars to Northwest Florida had achieved “largely a worked out product.”
However, Latvala did say there is one issue “we’ve still got some work to do on.”
As it turns out, the issue is a doozy and a potential deal breaker.
And not everyone shares Latvala’s opinion that just one worrisome issue remains where Triumph Gulf Coast funding is concerned.
“This is inadvertently setting up Northwest Florida for failure,” Henry Kelley, the Okaloosa County School District's director of community affairs, said of the Senate’s Triumph package.
The greatest concern for many is that under a newly amended Senate bill, $120 million of the $300 million being set aside for eight Panhandle counties will be dedicated for spending, in $15 million increments, by each county. And county commissions will be charged with deciding which projects are prioritized.
Fort Walton Beach City Manager Michael Beedie said county elected officials were given the opportunity previously to decide which projects BP dollars should be spent on, and so badly botched it that some RESTORE Act funds remain unallocated to this day.
“One of the things we’ve tried to convey to our local legislative delegation is that we do not want the funding controlled by the counties like the RESTORE Act has been,” Beedie said. “If we put the money in the hands of Triumph, they can come up with one process that everyone can follow and go to one board that will review projects for approval.”
The five-member Triumph Gulf Coast was empowered by legislation passed following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill to act as a board of directors and appropriate all BP money coming to the Panhandle through fines or legal settlements for economic development.
State Rep. Jay Trumbull, a Panama City Republican who chairs the House Select Committee on Triumph Gulf Coast, echoed Beedie’s sentiment that allowing county commissions control over 40 percent of the $300 million installment “basically adds another layer of bureaucracy.”
“The House bill delivers the dollars from the state to the Triumph board and the Triumph board gets the projects,” Trumbull said. “The Senate bill moves the dollars from the state to Triumph, to the counties, and then back to Triumph for funding. That doesn’t make any sense to me.”
If the Senate passes its Triumph bill as written, a conference committee will have to iron out differences in the two bills.
Latvala assured fellow Appropriations Committee members that given “some wordsmithing,” a compromise could be reached.
Trumbull sounded much less certain now that the Senate has added the provision to allow county commissions to set priorities.
“I don’t think that’s something we can agree on,” he said. “It’s disappointing. The House went through the entire process and passed a bill unanimously. This adds a new set of hands on these dollars, and that is what we want to keep from happening.”
State Sen. George Gainer, like Trumbull a Panama City Republican, offered the controversial amendment for Appropriations Committee consideration.
He said establishing the eight counties as conduits for local government and school district project priorities will save the Triumph Gulf Coast board from being “inundated with so many requests.”
“We can’t have every incorporated city in the eight counties in charge. It would be a free for all,” Gainer said.
Gainer said it is important for people to have a place to go with project ideas, and his amendment establishes the counties as their sounding board. He also noted that there will still be $180 million dollars in Triumph Gulf Coast coffers that individuals and entities can apply for by going directly to the Triumph Gulf Coast board.
Kelley, the Okaloosa School Board's legislative liaison, said letting county commissioners decide where to spend basically half of the first installment of BP money “does not put the school districts and municipalities on even footing for that money.”
He said he is afraid giving such a large percentage of the total money to individual counties could discourage regional cooperation. He has put together a proposal advocating an allocation of $50 million to provide “an almost immediate upgrade to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs in the school districts of all eight counties.”
The original Senate bill — the one amended in its entirety Wednesday — would have established a trust fund into which the remainder of the $1.6 billion or so coming from BP to the eight disproportionately affected counties would be directly deposited.
Under the amended language, future payments — scheduled to arrive annually in $100 million increments from 2019 through 2033 — will be required, like the first installment, to pass through the hands of state lawmakers.
Kelley said that's dangerous for two reasons.
The firs involves bonding.
“The bonding capability of the money has effectively been removed,” Kelley said. How, he asked, can entities that win long-term project awards from Triumph Gulf Coast borrow money if bonding companies cannot be sure from year to year whether a fickle Florida Legislature will come through with its annual allocation?
Kelley also envisioned a scenario in which the Triumph Gulf Coast board doesn’t find legitimate ways to spend the $300 million it receives this year before the next payment installment arrives.
“I’m not sure we can spend $300 million in three years,” he said. “What happens when the Legislature says, 'You couldn’t spend the $300 million fast enough, we’re keeping the rest of the money?”
Lastly, he saw danger in the House Select Committee’s proposal to add two new members to the Triumph Gulf Coast board. The Senate bill also calls for the addition of new members representing smaller counties.
Under both bills, the House speaker and Senate president will each select one member.
That gives both legislative leaders two picks each, and, as existing terms expire, the Legislature can control the majority of the board's makeup.
“When that happens, do we have an independent board?” Kelley wondered.