Transparency crucial with RESTORE money

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Florida’s 23 Gulf Coast counties are about to enjoy a windfall, as the U.S. Treasury Department recently finalized rules allowing states impacted by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill to apply for billions in funds. How they choose to spend that money could go a long way toward determining the future of the region.

Passed in 2012, the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunity and Revived Economics of the Gulf States Act, or RESTORE Act, dedicates 80 percent of fines levied against BP to projects that support environmental restoration and economic development in the Gulf Coast states that felt the spill’s effects.

Unlike the other four affected states, the RESTORE Act requires Florida’s allocation go directly to the 23 Gulf Coast counties. Thus, while the state governments of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama will have a significant say in how funds are spent, in Florida, such decisions will be made at the local level.

The millions of dollars that will pour directly into Gulf Coast counties place a great deal of responsibility on their leaders, as well as presenting them unique opportunities. Full transparency and a measured approach will be crucial to ensure the funds are spent in the best possible way.

Citizens should be given ample time and opportunities to review and comment on recommended projects. With today’s technology, transparency is not a cumbersome or expensive proposition: projects, their cost estimates and other related analyses should be posted on official websites well in advance of final decisions. Healthy discussion and oversight will help counties avoid unintended consequences.

Officials should know the long-term costs of projects they elect to undertake, and their guiding principle should be to avoid creating liabilities for taxpayers. Projects that require continued subsidies, permanent growth in public sector employment or, worse, new government programs to keep them viable will require taxpayers to pick up the tab when RESTORE money runs out.

In short, these funds should be treated as a one-time windfall and should be directed toward high-return projects and improvements. They should not be used to grow government, impose new taxpayer liabilities or benefit a politically connected few. Rather, they should be used to make Florida safer, greener and more economically and physically resilient.

Restoration of Florida’s wetlands and barrier islands, for example, can begin to achieve these goals. The state’s fishing industry, which employs roughly a quarter-million Floridians, benefits from healthy coastal wetlands that provide natural habitats for fish, oysters and other wildlife. Many of Florida’s 7 million ecotourists visit these areas. But perhaps more importantly, coastal wetlands and barrier islands serve as vital natural buffers that protect developed inland areas from wind and storm surge.

There are a number of other ways RESTORE Act funds can be used to make coastal areas more resilient. Building or modernizing levees, pumps, storm-water drainage systems and other infrastructure to reduce flooding would make areas safer, as well as cheaper to insure. Fortifying or widening causeway bridges to facilitate coastal evacuations and disaster response before and after hurricanes could save lives and accelerate the recovery process. Modernizing water and sewage systems would reduce toxic discharge, preserve drinking water and hasten service restoration after a disaster.

Although the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the greatest ecological disaster to affect Florida, the RESTORE Act gives us an unprecedented opportunity to make large-scale investments that will leave a lasting impact. If used wisely, they can help make our Gulf Coast stronger and more vibrant than ever before.

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