The panel charged with overseeing one and a half billion dollars from the BP oil spill settlement is now fully staffed – including one member who helped create it.
Our story begins in 2010, shortly after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which sent massive amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. State Sen. Don Gaetz asked colleagues to approve a bill anticipating damage to the Panhandle coast.
“It said that if the state of Florida itself were able to recover any economic damages from BP,” said Gaetz, “that 75 percent of that money, whatever it was, would go to the benefit of the eight coastal counties of northwest Florida.”
Those counties are Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, Franklin, and Wakulla.
Fast-forward to 2013, when Senate President Don Gaetz sponsored legislation to set up Triumph Gulf Coast as the repository and steward for money coming in for economic damage claims.
“Attorney General Pam Bondi secured a two billion dollar economic damage settlement, which was declared by the federal court in New Orleans,” said Gaetz. “This is the state’s claim for damages, arising out of the loss of tax revenues during and after the oil spill.”
Gov. Rick Scott signed an updated Triumph Gulf Coast bill in June that authorized the transfer of the first 300 million dollar payment of the settlement. After the ceremony at Pensacola International Airport, Scott said that one of the goals of spending the initial payment, is to diversify the Panhandle’s economy.
“You think about the Panhandle economy, it’s still very much tied to our military and tourism,” the Governor said. “Which are very, very, important to parts of the economy and we have to continue to keep that going. But this gives up an opportunity for a lot more companies and a lot more success here.”
The updated law also added two new seats to the board, going from five to seven members. House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron each made one appointment. The Speakers choice was Don Gaetz.
“I did not seek this appointment,” Gaetz said. I had heard a rumor that the Speaker was interested in finding somebody who has some deep roots in northwest Florida; and who understood the purposes of this legislation. I welcome the opportunity.”
One mission for the board is how to leverage the one and a half billion dollars into more money to, as Gov. Scott mentioneD, diversify the region’s economy.
“No longer be a sort of a pawn to what might happen out in the Gulf of Mexico – God forbid – or what might happen in the Pentagon; if, God forbid, we had a BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure] process that puts our bases in danger,” said Gaetz. “We need a third leg under the stool of northwest Florida’s economy.”
Now that the gang’s all here, the first full meeting of the Triumph Gulf Coast Board is set for next Thursday at 10:30 a.m., at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in downtown Pensacola.
Gaetz cautions that Triumph will not function as the United Way, by receiving grant applications and writing checks. Instead, he sees it more as a venture fund.
“Where we seek out opportunities to join with local government; with the private sector, maybe with the federal government in funding transformational changes that could really make a difference in northwest Florida.”
Don Gaetz is joined on the Triumph members by former House Speaker Allan Bense; Gulf Power CEO Stan Connally, Pam Dana with the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition; Stephen Riggs IV, from the accounting firm Carr, Riggs and Ingram, and Bonzetti Development Company founder Bob Bonzetti.