The Florida House and Senate have unanimously passed legislation that ensures funds from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil-spill settlement will remain in Northwest Florida.
Lawmakers approved HB 7077 and the Senate version SB 364, establishing the Gulf Coast Economic Corridor for eight most disproportionately affected counties.
The votes ended months of debate and guaranteed that the bulk of Florida’s $2 billion dollar share of the BP Settlement money would come to the western Panhandle.
“That decision has been made and we’re (going to) see the money begin to flow back into our economy and choose great projects that’s (going to) build jobs and our economy over the next 20 years,” said Senator Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze.
Broxson is one of the members of the Northwest Florida delegation that helped to broker the legislative deal. It calls for the state to immediately release the allotted $300M (75%) of the first settlement payment of $400M- and all future payments henceforth - to Triumph Gulf Coast, the non-profit created to manage the money.
“Because of the amendment we added....all installments for the next 15 years they’re (going to) come into the treasury through a trust fund and within 30 days transferred straight into Triumph which is located in the Panhandle,” Broxson said.
“So, we won’t have this battle in future years on where the money goes.”
“I am satisfied where we have come out,” said Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson IV. “I mean it’s like with every-single legislation, you always with you could have gotten a little more there, a little more here. But at the end of the day, it’s a fair resolution.”
Robinson has been involved in Escambia’s effort to plan for the BP money and says he’s ready to get on with the distribution.
“Of that first $300 million, five percent of that will have to be spent in each of the counties. So, the eight counties, five percent or about 40 percent will be there. Sixty percent then will be used for regional projects.”
Further, the legislation calls for Triumph Gulf Coast to allocate at least four percent of future settlement payments to fund projects and programs in each of the eight counties, including Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Franklin, Gulf and Wakulla. It guarantees that each county will get an equal share no matter its size or demographics.
“Some of the smaller ones were more concerned that they wouldn’t have opportunities to compete,” Robinson said. “So it’s (going to) ensure they will get some money about this and it’s (going to) ensure that as the Triumph board then looks at those projects, which will be as transformative as possible in really helping the economy move forward.”
As Robinson points out, the lion’s share of the money to be distributed by Triumph Gulf Coast will be spent on regional projects, and that’s where Kim Wilmes comes in.
“I think it’s fantastic. I think the sun is shining in northwest Florida and it’s a whole new day for the Panhandle,” said Wilmes, who is President and CEO of and Florida’s Great Northwest, the regional economic development organization representing the “Panhandle” region.
For the past 18 months, her team has been working on an economic strategy for the region. The result is the “Northwest Florida Forward” initiative. Wilmes says the document can serve as a broad guideline for submissions to Triumph Gulf Coast.
“There’s no specific project that’s listed within it; it’s really strategic actions that we as a region should move forward with,” Wilmes said. “And our intent there is to pull the folks together and we hope we can get people across region to work together and give them ideas of the types of projects that could be submitted that do qualify for Triumph criteria in hopes that those types of projects will then be awarded.”
Once the BP settlement money starts to flow and economic development projects are awarded, it will be game-changing for Northwest Florida. That’s $300 million already in the cue, plus 75 percent of future $100 million dollar annual payments to the state from 2019 through 2033.
“We’ve never seen that kind of money allocated for economic development,” added Sen. Broxson. “And we’re anxious to prove to the state of Florida that we can spend it and spend it wisely.”
To ensure the process is fair and transparent, there are a number of safeguards in place for the Triumph board, chaired by former House Speaker Alan Bense.
The meetings will have to be conducted in the Sunshine. There will be audits, and the panel will have to report back to the current Speaker and governor once a year on what’s been done with the money.