The Florida Senate unanimously approved legislation Wednesday designed to help Northwest Florida recover from the effects of the oil spill last year.
The legislation, authored by Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz, would allot $10 million to Florida’s Great Northwest, a private economic development corporation in Destin. The bill would lower job and wage requirements for businesses that are awarded government subsidies and economic development tax breaks in the area.
The bill also requires that 75 percent of claim funds collected by the state from BP must be used in the eight counties that run along the north gulf – from Escambia to Wakulla.
“The state of Florida is like a family and Northwest Florida is a good earner for the family,” Gaetz said. “Now this important earner is down on his knees and it is in the interest of the family to get that earner back on the job for the benefit of the whole state.”
If the bill is enacted, Florida’s Great Northwest would contract with the state’s Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development for use of the $10 million. The money could be used to promote research, job creation and for economic diversification, which Gaetz said is especially important for Northwest Florida.
“We need to try to put a third leg under the economy of northwest Florida,” Gaetz said. “We are a two trick pony as of now. We rely on the military and tourism.”
Florida’s Great Northwest, a private non-profit, has faced scrutiny in the past for not disclosing how it uses public funds.
Economic development agreements in Florida are exempted from public records laws for two years, according to Good Jobs First, a government accountability group that conducted a study last year of economic development programs across the country.
“Despite its status as the ‘Sunshine State,’ Florida has some critical shortcomings in its transparency practice,” the report stated. “This practice of secrecy has serious implications for democratic processes and accountability of economic development programs.”
Florida’s Great Northwest has argued that because it is a private company, it’s dealings are not subject to any public records laws.
The bill also would create a commission to recommend any changes to state or federal laws to improve regulation of offshore drilling. The commission would establish a multi-state response plan for oil spills, similar to plans for hurricane response.
State or local permits facing expiration dates during a declared state of emergency would be extended under the bill to prevent a further stifling of economic activity, Gaetz said.
The bill will now go to the house where Rep. Marti Coley of Mariana has filed similar, but less extensive, legislation.
“This bill did not pass by magic,” Gaetz said. “We worked hard to resolve the concerns of down-state senators. We hope the House will take up the bill and pass it.”
See bill here: FloridaOilSpillBill