Government

Fishermen Still Wait for BP Marketing Money

State: $20 million has arrived, just hasn't been dispersed
By: Lilly Rockwell News Service of Florida | Posted: April 12, 2011 3:55 AM

While lawmakers touted the $30 million given Monday to seven Florida counties to pay for big-budget advertising campaigns, commercial fishermen are left wondering when they will be able to spend the $10 million promised them to market seafood last year.

Last October, BP, the company that leased the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded in April 2010 and leaked 4.9 million barrels of oil into the ocean, agreed to give the state $10 million for seafood testing and another $10 million for marketing seafood. But that money is caught in a legislative limbo.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has to wait for the Legislative Budget Commission to authorize spending that $20 million. The commission has the authority to grant agencies the ability to use funds that were not appropriated in the normal budget process.

“A lot of people said ‘OK, we got it, and it’s helping us,’ but not yet, not yet,” said Jerry Sansom, the executive director of the Organized Fishermen of Florida, which is pressing lawmakers to authorize spending.

Sterling Ivey, spokesman for Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Adam Putnam, said the department just received the $20 million from BP on March 30.

“It’s been within the last two weeks that the agreements have wrapped up and everything was signed,” Ivey said.

Sansom said the money is needed to assure buyers of Florida seafood that it is safe to eat.

“The Florida product was never affected (and) that is not the perception that the world has about seafood from the Gulf,” Sansom said.

The Florida seafood industry was badly battered by last year’s oil spill. American consumers were leery of eating seafood from the oil-infused Gulf waters, even though fishermen insisted their product was safe.

The $30 million BP said Monday it will give to seven Panhandle counties is designed to help pay for advertising campaigns outside of Florida to convince tourists to stay in Florida hotels and frolic on its beaches.

Though there is nothing preventing these counties from also promoting the seafood industry, that is not what the $30 million grant was designed for. Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, said he expects some of those dollars to go toward advertising “dining out,” which would help the seafood industry.

Some lawmakers were critical of the slow-moving process for seafood marketing. The local counties that are getting $30 million for tourist marketing will see their first $10 million within 15 days, a BP official said.

That process can move more quickly because the money will be delivered directly to the counties.

“It’s unfortunate that the money is being held up and I hope the (Legislative Budget Commission) does meet soon so that the money is freed up,” said Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna.

House Appropriations Chairman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, who is in charge of the Legislative Budget Commission this year, did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Her counterpart in the Senate, Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said Monday he would consider putting the money in the Senate’s budget bill if the Legislative Budget Commission did not meet before the end of session.

“It’s up to the House to decide whether, or if, they want to call an LBC meeting,” Alexander said. “To the extent it doesn’t happen, then we would address many of the issues in this year’s budget bill.”

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