Florida oil spill relief measure approved by legislative panel


Legislation designed to help coastal areas of the Florida Panhandle recover from economic damage caused by last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill is headed for a floor vote in the state Senate next week after final committee approval Friday.

The bill includes several provisions designed to help eight “disproportionately affected” counties diversify their economies, including a $10 million state appropriation for economic development efforts there.

It also would allocate 75 percent of money the state receives for spill damages to economic development as well as environmental research and restoration in the affected counties.

A relatively small amount of oil from BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill off Louisiana washed up on Panhandle beaches and most of it was rapidly cleaned up. The fear or perception, though, that the area was more seriously affected caused thousands of tourists to stay away.

The $10 million appropriation would go to Florida’s Great Northwest, a regional economic development agency, “to close deals” so the affected counties can better compete for new business, said Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who sponsored the bill.

“That’s money that we could use if we have to undertake some kind of special arrangement to attract somebody there who will bring us jobs,” Gaetz said. “In northwest Florida we’re a two-trick pony. We depend on tourism and we depend on the military.”

The Senate Budget Committee unanimously approved the bill (SB 248). It’s expected to get a floor vote Wednesday. A similar bill (HB 1309) has been filed in the House but has yet to receive a committee hearing.

At Gaetz’ request, the committee removed a three-month sales tax “holiday” for marine-related purchases in the region starting July.

“The urgent nature of a tax holiday for marine supplies and boats sort of passed,” Gaetz said. “Secondly, there was a fiscal (cost) attached to that provision that would have caused questions of the bill. I felt that was an unnecessary anchor on the bill.”

That cost would have been nearly $20 million in lost state and local tax revenues. With Florida facing a potential $3.6 billion shortfall for the budget year beginning July 1, legislative leaders are not looking favorably upon measures that would reduce state revenues.

Gaetz said the tax holiday was put in the bill when first drafted months ago, and if people were going to buy boats to take advantage of it, they would have done so by now.

The affected counties are Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa Walton, Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla.

Damages collected by the state – 75 percent in the affected area and 25 percent elsewhere – could be used for such activities as financial incentives to attract new businesses and scientific research on how the spill has affected fisheries, coastal wildlife and vegetation as well as their restoration.

Gaetz compared the bill to legislation passed last year for economic development on the Space Coast, which is facing the loss of thousands of jobs as the Space Shuttle program winds down, and for central Florida after the 2001 terrorist attacks affected tourism.

Other provisions would delay the expiration of building permits and authorizations for six months and let marinas, other businesses and individuals who lease submerged lands from the state apply for fee reimbursements under certain circumstances.

Also, the bill would waive certain requirements for businesses to qualify for state economic incentives in the area for three years.

Bill Kaczor of The Associated Press wrote this report.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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