Over the past few days, a firestorm erupted among Florida Gulf Coast counties over Senate legislation that at first appeared to seize control of RESTORE Act funds intended to go directly to counties. That would have violated the federal law that U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson helped compose, and Florida's senior senator objected strenuously in a letter to Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday.
The RESTORE Act directs a portion of the civil fines collected over the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill three years ago be sent directly to 23 Florida coastal counties with the eight Northwest countes most affected getting 75 percent. Manatee County is in line for millions.
Senate Bill 1024 creates a nonprofit corporation designed to manage funds acquired by the state attorney general through lawsuits.
Elected commissioners in the eight targeted counties would not control those funds as the quasi-public agency would determine which projects to fund. A five-member board, all political appointees of state leaders, would run Triumph Gulf Coast.
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Attorney General Pam Bondi sued BP and Halliburton last week, seeking $5.5 billion for lost state revenue because of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, initiated the legislation in the wake of scandals over RESTORE money in Okaloosa County.
An amendment to Senate Bill 1024 attempts to alleviate fears of a state takeover of any RESTORE money: "Notwithstanding any other provision under this act, this act shall not affect any funds distributed to any county under (the RESTORE Act)."
We'd like to believe that will be so, but the Legislature has a history of rewriting bills in the waning hours of the session, which concludes on May 3.
And some county commissions remain fearful that portions of the legislation will still allow the state to take some of the money from Clean Water Act fines that the RESTORE Act directs to counties.
The Senate bill alarms Manatee County, too.
Charlie Hunsicker, Manatee's Natural Resources Department director, wrote in a memo early this week that the legislation has the potential to set "a far reaching precedent for taking away responsibilities accorded to the remaining 15 gulf counties in Florida and also for the RESTORE Act privileges given to the Gulf Consortium, as the flow of funds from the BP lawsuits and judgments play out over the next several years."
Some lawmakers contend the bill remains ambigious on RESTORE and should be clarified. While the legislation may not directly violate the act, it certainly violates the spirit of the law.
All in all, this is one more egregious case of the Legislature superseding home rule.
Elected county commissioners should be held accountable, and their ability to govern should not be co-opted by the state over fears of corruption due to past scandals.
Plus, like Hunsicker, we worry there will be unintended consequences in the future -- consequences that handcuff Manatee County. This measure should not be passed into law.