A recent Pensacola News-Journal editorial pushes back against Kenneth Feinberg’s decision to consider compensating oil spill losses that occurred in the parts of Florida where oil never came ashore:
What bothers us the most is that in the beginning of the process, Feinberg was adamant that proximity to spilled oil would matter greatly. In fact, he told the News Journal editorial board that non-impacted areas would not receive compensation, in the vast amount of cases.
But money follows political power and, unfortunately did anyone really think the rest of the state would be shut out while the Panhandle received hundreds of millions of BP’s dollars?
After all, the argument runs, some of the oil-free counties that have received the most money include Pinellas (home to Gov. Charlie Crist), Orange (home of Attorney General Bill McCollum, one of the leading figures in the push to consider claims from all over the state) and Hillsborough (home of Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink).
Is it just coincidence that, with the exception of Monroe County (Key West), the counties receiving the most compensation money from Feinberg’s team also are the ones that represent existing or new political power in Tallahassee?
Could be. One thing those counties all have in common is a large tourism industry. Feinberg initially announced his intention to remove geographic restrictions on oil spill claims during a meeting of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, where he suggested that most of the legitimate claims from oil-free areas were likely tourism-related.
Enter Rick Harper, director of the Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development at the University of West Florida, who is quoted in the News-Journal‘s front-page story that inspired the editorial:
“The appropriate number to focus on is dollars paid per tourism job that exists in the economy,” he said. “This is somewhat similar between the Northwest Florida counties, although Franklin and Gulf are high. But it is (more than) 100 times as much in Escambia per tourism job as it is in Hillsborough, for example.”
Harper said the $100 million sent to Escambia was enough to account for about 27 percent of tourism-related income. That’s $8,080 in compensation per tourism-related job.
The $3.8 million that Hillsborough received, however, wasn’t enough to replace even 1 percent of tourism-related income. That county received just $73 per tourism job.
Still, the argument underscores the difficulties inherent in Feinberg’s decisions.
When he made his announcement to the hospitality association, Feinberg stressed the importance of treading carefully. If there was no geographic restriction whatsoever, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility could be clogged by claims from all over the country, hampering his ability to deliver aid where it’s most needed.
In short, he was straining to satisfy both those most directly impacted and those who felt their losses were being ignored. Florida, with its heavy reliance on tourism and hundreds of miles of coastline, and with most of the physical harm concentrated in its northwest corner, maybe the most vulnerable to divisions between those two groups.