State Sen. Jack Latvala, who as chairman of the upper chamber's Appropriations Committee holds great sway over how Florida's dollars are spent, said Friday that he and Senate President Joe Negron want to see BP lawsuit settlement dollars spent primarily in Northwest Florida.
"I'm committed and the Senate President is committed and will fight, with Sen. Broxson and Sen. Gainer, as well as the local House delegation, to make sure the money gets spent the way it was intended," said Latvala, who attended a Friday breakfast hosted by the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Sens. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, and George Gainer, R-Panama City, represent Northwest Florida. Both also attended the breakfast.
Latvala, a Tampa-area Republican, said what he meant by "intended" was that the $400 million the state has thus far received from BP should be doled out as designated in the 2011 Oil Spill Economic Recovery Act.
The law, sponsored by Niceville's then-Sen. Don Gaetz and supported by Latvala, dictated that 75 percent of the total BP dollars received in a legal settlement would go to eight Panhandle counties deemed "disproportionately affected" by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. That would be $300 million of the $400 million that arrived last summer as a first installment of a 20-year, $2.1 billion payout.
Those counties are: Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton, Escambia, Bay, Gulf, Wakulla and Franklin.
State Rep. Mel Ponder expressed surprise Monday that the state Senate's highest ranking member had joined its appropriations chairman in vowing to join what some still worry could be a struggle to protect Northwest Florida's promised share of the BP dollars.
"That's actually great news," said Ponder, R-Destin.
Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran had already stated that he intended to see the BP money divided according to the terms of the Oil Spill Economic Recovery Act, and established a Select Committee on Triumph Gulf Coast to oversee its dispersal.
This "will ensure the appropriate and transparent appropriation of public funds dedicated to the eight disproportionately affected counties," Corcoran said when announcing the seven-member board would be comprised solely of House members who represent Northwest Florida.
Ponder said the Select Committee will convene for the first time this week.
Though he supported the financial division of funds, Latvala added that the Oil Spill Economic Recovery Act itself "has to be fixed from the way it is written now."
"It has a glitch in it," he said.
Latvala said the glitch lies in the mechanism through which the original law would have allowed funds to be distributed.
As written by Gaetz, the law would put the BP dollars into the hands of a five-member Triumph Gulf Coast Board, which would act as a board of directors in dispensing and overseeing economic development projects meant to diversify the Northwest Florida economy.
Senators, like their House counterparts, want to see more state oversight of the money.
How much oversight each body desires, and where the House and Senate may part ways on legislating oversight won't become clear until the legislative session gets underway in March.
In a Legislature in which friction between the two Republican-dominated chambers has already been well documented, the governance of the millions in BP dollars could become another point of contention.
"I'm a little concerned about what the intentions of the House are," Latvala said.