The Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s environmental damage, though tragic, was far less than feared during the many months of the event. The economic impacts were wider and longer than expected. In recognition of that, federal legislation directed much of the fines and penalties directly to five Gulf states most directly affected.
The formula for applying these monies is complicated but gives the federal government general control that will see to it the monies go for substance and not fluff.
Gov. Rick Scott and some legislators were, and are still, somewhat unhappy about not having control on where and how that money is to be spent. They have expressed fears that the county governments may take a frivolous or ineffective approach, and have been keeping a careful eye on that process. We encourage that kind of protective attitude, but caution that the state level has exactly the same vulnerabilities applying that money effectively. Western Florida’s eight counties will receive the lion’s share of any funds Florida receives, as prescribed by federal law, but the dollars in the Panhandle are potentially hundreds of millions and therefore attract a lot of interested parties — and potential mischief.
Over the past several months, the eight Panhandle counties have taken a productive path in a cooperative fashion. This is key to the local governments keeping control of when, where and how the monies will be best used. Should political scheming and manipulation break out, it would create an opening for the state to step in to control the process. There is reason to believe that just the possibility of that will keep our local governments on the straight and narrow.
However, a new danger has arisen: Attorney General Eric Holder made it clear he planned for the Department of Justice to take control of these funds under the National Resource Damage Assessment. Apparently, he links the April 21, 2011 funding from this trust for early Gulf restoration, about $1 billion, as the controlling law. Mr. Holder would change the nature of the penalties from being disallowed as corporate tax deductions. Yes, BP would be rewarded economically by being allowed to deduct these payments. Every business in this county, you and I and are never allowed to deduct penalties.
Okaloosa County has shown leadership in the preliminary actions with the other seven counties. The Board of County Commissioners has been ahead of the curve with public informational activities. The Crestview Area Chamber of Commerce launched an Economic Roundtable table early last summer to do some serious think-tank work on the RESTORE Act dynamics. That roundtable gathered regional business leaders — from the south , mid- and north county — to analyze long-term issues. This group quickly identified the kinds of projects necessary to promote effective growth and new economic opportunities for the next couple of decades.
The best solutions for both repairing the Panhandle’s damaged economy and setting into motion economic strength for the future will come from local governments and local leaders than from elsewhere. There is little hope good things would follow from the Department of Justice wresting these justly deserved funds away from local control and dictating from Washington. It would be a loss for the region, a loss for the environment and a loss for the country.
Dennis M. Mitchell, president elect, Crestview Chamber of Commerce
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