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Gaetz creates non-profit to protect oil spill settlement money

Deep within the massive 100-page amendment to SB 1024, the Senate's giant economic developmment bill, is a lengthy new initiative offered up by Senate President Don Gaetz designed to shield any potential proceeds from the lawsuit against BP and Halliburton over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up the measure, as part of its marathon meeting on Tuesday. Gaetz told the Herald/Times the idea is part of his ongoing efforts to secure money for the eight most seriously affected counties, most of which he represents -- Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton and Wakulla.

Under the amendment, the state would create Triumph Gulf Coast Inc., a nonprofit corporation whose budget, management and control "is not subject" to the Department of Economic Opportunity.

The company would receive 75 percent of all proceeds obtained by Attorney General Pam Bondi in her lawsuit against BP, and any other money that could be forthcoming from other sources. The company would hold the money in a trust fund that could not be touched by legislators, and it would be invested in any financial institution chosen by the company's board of directors.

Gaetz emphasized that the company will not have any control over the money directed by Congress to be go directly to Florida's coastal counties or private individuals under the federal Restore Act. Instead the money will come from any proceeds that are due to the state from Bondi's lawsuit. 

Florida became the fourth state to sue BP for and the cement contractor Halliburton over the 2010 disaster. The suit, filed on Saturday, faults BP for not changing the batteries on the rig’s blowout preventer and accuses Halliburton of installing faulty cement barriers.

"We don’t know whether she’ll be successful, whether it will go to court and whether it will settle,'' Gaetz said. "What this provision does is to establish an endowment only for those funds that would come to the state -- not funds that would to anybody else."

Gaetz hired Donna Arduin, a one-time budget advisor to former Gov. Jeb Bush and former House Speaker Marco Rubio, to help craft the proposal. Her contract pays her $10,000 for two months of work during session. Arduin patterned the language of the proposal after a similar nonprofit set up in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Gaetz said. 

Arduin helped create the trust fund the state used to steer proceeds from the tobacco settlement into health care programs and Gaetz acknowledged that those funds have not always been used by lawmakers as intended.

"I want to ensure that these funds that would come to the state would not be drained away or frittered away, but would be placed in an endowment and the endowment proceeds would e used in a thoughtful and deliberate manner,'' he said.

Gaetz, who will be required to retire from office because of term limits in three years, said he "can't reach out from the politcal grave and direct how future legislatures will operate" but he hoped to be able to shield the money from being misspent, or spent all at once -- the way some of the Restore Act money was spent in Okaloosa County.

"I'm embarrassed by this,'' he said. "We've got a county commissioner who's been suspended by the governor, a tourism director who stole some money and committed suicide; the collection of bed taxes has been taken away from the clerk of court and given to someone else. I'm sensitive to all that."

Proceeds from the endowment must pay for economic development projects, education programs in locall K-20 institutions and projects that benefit the environment and the economy.

The non-profit, while privately held, will be subject to chapter 119, the state's public records and public meetings laws, as well as the state's public disclosure laws, an maintain a web site with its public notices. Triumph Gulf Coast's board will be appointed by the governor, Cabinet, president of the Senate and Speaker of the House. Gaetz and Weatherford will be able to appoint people who can serve for six years.