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When nets are cast off, how will state pay?

When Florida's net ban law takes effect next week, thousands of commercial fishermen will be encouraged to turn in their nets for bounties of $500 to $3,500.

It's simple: Turn in a net, get the money.

The state officials setting up this program face just three problems.

They don't know how many nets they may have to buy. They aren't sure where they will get the money to pay for them. And they are unwilling to tap one source earmarked by the Florida Senate: the state trust fund for spinal cord and brain injury victims.

On July 5, the state Department of Labor and Employment Security plans to open 23 "one-stop centers" around the state where commercial fishermen can file applications to sell their nets and apply for unemployment benefits.

Florida legislators approved a plan that allocates up to $20-million for the net-buying program without a tax increase.

So what source of money will be used?

"That may be clear by mid-August," said Paul Belcher, a policy coordinator in Gov. Lawton Chiles' budget office. "We anticipate we'll find it. I can't tell you where it'll come from, because I really don't know at this point."

A week from today, many of Florida's commercial fishermen will own nets they no longer can use.

That's the effective date of a constitutional amendment, approved by 72 percent of the voters, banning some types of fishing nets in state waters and limiting the size of others.

The state program is designed to provide partial payment for that loss.

It also has been designed to encourage a big turnout on the day the one-stop centers open.

State money for the program is available on a "first-come, first-served" basis. If money runs short, those who filed the earliest applications to sell their nets get paid.

The program allows licensed commercial fishermen who net at least $2,500 worth of fish per year to sell from four to 10 nets, depending on their past income. Payments range from $500 for shrimp trawls to $1,000 for mullet fishermen's gill nets and $3,500 for large nets used to encircle bait fish.

A separate program offers unemployment benefits of up to $250 a week to commercial fishermen left jobless by the net ban.

The Labor Department hopes to have enough money to pay for every net offered. It estimates that 45,000 nets are in use, but expects only one-fourth of them to be turned in because of the program's eligibility limits.

If its estimates are accurate, $20-million should be enough to buy every eligible net, department spokeswoman Renee Waters said.

The net ban is being challenged in court by the Organized Fishermen of Florida.

At the same time, its executive director, Jerry Sansom, urges commercial fishermen to apply for the net-buying program July 5 "to cover their bets."

Sansom criticized the no-tax funding mechanism for the program, calling it "a cop-out by the Senate," and the formula that limits how many nets a fisherman can sell.

"To me, that's somewhat counterproductive, if the goal is to remove temptation" to fish illegally, he said.

The House proposed compensating commercial fishermen with a small license fee that would have been paid by recreational fishermen who advocated the net ban.

In the Senate, that fee was eliminated. Instead, senators adopted a plan offered by Sen. George Kirkpatrick to rely on leftover money from existing state money.

Department of Labor trust funds were identified as one source for the $20-million net program.

So far, the governor's budget office has identified three usable trust funds. One appears to have $7.5-million available. Another has "probably less than $1-million," Belcher said.

The third assists people recovering from crippling brain and spinal cord injuries. "There are extensive waiting lists" for that money already, Belcher said. "I don't believe at this point we would want to tap into those funds."

There is another potential source of money to buy those fishing nets: unspent state money originally allocated to match federal dollars for various programs.

State officials expect to find some money there. But they won't know how much until well after they take applications to buy nets.

They also haven't decided when fishermen will start getting checks for their nets.

The Labor Department plans to operate one-stop centers on July 5, 6, 7, 10 and 11 to take applications for the net program, unemployment compensation and other state assistance, such as job training.

In the Tampa Bay area, the centers will be in Pinellas Park, Brandon, Crystal River and Hudson.