House Looks for Ways to Provide Economic Relief to Panhandle

Tallahassee, FL – Republican leaders in the Legislature say they have taken up the complicated task of delivering economic relief to the western Panhandle. The Florida House quickly ended a session called by the governor to place an oil drilling ban on the November ballot. Instead, James Call reports lawmakers created working groups that will propose legislation for a possible September session.

Northwest Florida counties have been on edge since April, fearing a massive, toxic oil spill will pollute marshes, wetlands and beaches. Eric Barry organized demonstrations against offshore drilling before the BP spill occurred. He was among the two-hundred people who lobbied for a constitutional amendment banning drilling in Florida waters when lawmakers met for a July afternoon.

"Big oil is destroying our communities. It's destroying our lives. My wife and I own one of the oldest established businesses on scenic 30A in Blue Mountain Beach; fifteen years of hard work going down the drain because oil is coming to our shore."

House leaders say they are not ready to act. Speaker Larry Cretul is preparing for a September session to flesh out an economic relief package. He explains more time is needed because the spill presents a myriad of complex problems.

"This is no hurricane, this is no tornado, and this is no wildfire. This oil spill is a deep sea monster we've never met before, and I don't know of any state government (that) knows how to defend itself against it."

Summer is the Panhandle's tourism season, and indications are business is off by more than 20-percent. Although oil for the most part has stayed away from Florida beaches, the spill ripples across the Panhandle as fear. Scared oil will ruin their vacation, people are going elsewhere, hurting businesses and causing property to lose value. Santa Rosa County Property Appraiser Greg Brown told an oil spill economic task force that there will be a Panhandle uprising when tax notices go out in August.

"Citizens that are impacted by the negative decline of value due to the oil spill are going to come into all the property appraisers' offices in Northwest Florida and hold up their notice and say don't you know what's going on out there? Have you lost your mind; that this value that you gave, this is not the value today.'"

Democratic House members say the Florida Legislature passed up an opportunity to avoid such a turnout. Representative Rick Kriseman said it may have also placed some businesses in legal jeopardy when trying recover economic damages. Kriseman said a recent Supreme Court ruling could provide help, but the Legislature would need to change the law for Florida businesses to get relief.

"That case decision needs to be codified and expanded beyond just commercial fishermen. We have hotels all around the state of Florida who are suffering, charter boat fishermen who are suffering, property owners who are suffering."

The House voted to study more before acting. Speaker Cretul named six working groups to address the economics of the spill. Each group includes a Panhandle lawmaker, but none is chaired by a member from Northwest Florida. Cretul said the idea is for members to dive deep into the issue and search for responsible solutions. Representative Dean Cannon is in line to become speaker after the November election.

"There are real complex problems here: property tax relief, legal claims processes, transferring of tourism dollars and things to promote marketing, okay? We've got in the Senate Senator Gaetz's select committee, and in the House specific work groups within specific areas, and our job and our mission is to continue to work to get real relief to Floridians, not play politics with ballot questions."

While Cannon explained why leadership will wait to propose relief, his Democratic counterpart stood in the back of the chamber. The vote to end the session without debating a constitutional amendment was done mostly along party lines. Representative Ron Saunders is expected to be the Democratic leader in November.

"I think they are going to pay a price for refusing to let the people have a voice. Even people that did not like the amendment could have voted no on the ballot box. But they were denied even the right to vote on it, and I think the voters are going to be very upset. And I think the Republican members that voted against letting this thing come up are going to pay the price at the ballot box."

Both the Speaker of the House and the Senate President said a legislative session in September is likely. Together, the two men have the authority to call lawmakers back to Tallahassee.