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Gaetz Blasts Crist and Visit Florida Officials on Spill Response

Florida’s marketing response to the BP oil spill has been both tepid and late, a host of critics including Cabinet members and a Panhandle lawmaker charged Tuesday as Florida still awaits a $25 million check from the petroleum giant to offset the bad press just prior to the critical summer vacation season.

Gov. Charlie Crist and the state’s top tourism official defended the state’s efforts to lure slick-wary travelers to Florida’s Panhandle, the beaches of which remain sugar white with no oil in sight.

Calling the state’s $2.5 million initial effort at reassuring tourists amateurish and vague, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, blasted Crist and Visit Florida officials for not reacting quickly enough to help northwest Florida businesses survive the economic storm brought on by the explosion and spill from the BP rig Deepwater Horizon.

Gaetz’s district is taking the brunt of negative news surrounding the spill. Unlike South Florida where winter travel is king, the region’s peak season begins in three days and lasts through early September.

“It’s now Day 35 and I regret to say the state of Florida has not done enough,” Gaetz said.

Gaetz' comments came as the governor and Cabinet were briefed on efforts to cap the well that since April 20 has been spewing oil from a leak more than a mile below the surface. Damage to state waters, though, has so far been negligible.

Crist said BP on Tuesday transmitted a signed memorandum of understanding to the state, which will allow Florida officials to spend the $25 million promised by BP CEO Tony Hayward last week. That money can be added to the effort to reassure tourists that Florida remains a viable destination and isn't seeing any immediate effects of the spill.

Crist said he hopes the money will be wired later Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest.

“We’re doing everything humanly possible to make sure that people throughout the country understand our beaches are clean, that the water is clean, that the charter boats are open for business,” Crist said.

Gaetz wasn’t the only one critical of state efforts. Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the leading Democratic candidate for governor, said Florida officials have the ability to activate emergency loans with no or low interest rates to business that in some cases are scrambling to make payroll. So far, the state has not done so.

She also echoed Gaetz’ critique of a pair of Visit Florida ad spots, saying the TV commercials are “too generic” to adequately express that Florida beaches have been unaffected by the spill.

“This does nothing to help Northwest Florida,” Sink said.

The 20 and 30 second spots highlight the state’s beaches and use photographs taken from Northwest Florida beaches, although they don't mention that fact. The commercials, which will run through June 23, point viewers to the Visit Florida website, where more up-to-the-minute images are available, said Chris Thompson, CEO of Visit Florida.

After reviewing the spots that began airing Saturday, Gaetz said the effort is not measuring up.

“We have two poorly crafted ads that were thrown together, it seemed to me, at the last minute in somebody’s basement,” Gaetz said.

Panhandle lawmakers initially urged Crist to act in a May 5 letter. On Thursday, Senate President Jeff Atwater sent the governor another letter reiterating the need for speedy response to help Northwest Florida’s economy. Neither letter, Gaetz said, has received a response.

Despite meeting with him on the issues, Crist should be doing more, he said.

“He’s a very gracious person,” Gaetz said. “He needs to be an effective governor.”

Gaetz, who has been increasingly critical of the governor since Crist bolted from the Republican Party April 30, said politics has nothing to do with his ramped up criticism of state efforts.

“As far as I’m concerned the governor can join the Whig party today if he wants to,” Gaetz said. “This is not about what political affiliation the governor has. This is about the policy effectiveness of the governor’s office. “

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