Senate passes bill keeping BP millions on Coast

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Gabriel Austin, Mississippi Today

The Senate faces a Thursday deadline to pass bills. 

Millions in BP payments for damages from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill would be placed in a special fund and spent on projects in the Coast counties under a bill passed without debate by the Senate on Tuesday.

The Senate unanimously passed the bill that would place the BP oil spill settlement moneys in a separate account that could only be drawn from “for projects benefiting the Gulf Coast.”

The bill, if passed in current form by the House, would answer a years-long question about how state officials will spend the funds awarded to the state after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said he worked with Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, on the legislation.

The bill passed on the floor Tuesday in less than a minute with no debate.

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula

“I talked to many of my colleagues individually, and they all understood the significance of this bill to us on the Gulf Coast,” Wiggins said in a statement. “The bill now goes to the House, and while there is still a long way to go in the legislative process, we are one step closer to providing much needed funds for economic recovery on the Gulf Coast from the BP oil spill.”

Prospects in the House are uncertain. House Speaker Philip Gunn has not stated a position publicly on the bill.

BP, the multinational oil and gas company, agreed to pay Mississippi $750 million for damages related to the spill which impacted the entire Gulf Coast region.

The first portion of BP’s $750 million settlement – $150 million – arrived in July 2016. But lawmakers in March 2016, while crafting the current fiscal year’s budget, had already earmarked $41 million of that check for specific projects within the coastal counties.

The remaining $109.6 million is currently sitting in the state treasury. Starting in 2019, the state will receive payments of $40 million a year until 2033.

“The Mississippians most affected by the Deepwater Horizon disaster were the fishermen, hotel owners, restaurant owners and residents of the Gulf Coast,” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said in a statement.

“In today’s polarized times, many politicians are criticized for focusing only on what is in their own best interest. Today, the Mississippi Senate voted to do what is right,” Reeves said. “Our state senators recognize a healthy Gulf Coast economy benefits the entire state.”

Gulf Coast delegates, regardless of party affiliation, have ardently lobbied to keep the majority of the money in the three coastal counties. Others across the state see the money as a much-needed revenue gift for infrastructure improvements or other budgetary needs.

Reeves and Gov. Phil Bryant have maintained their support for Gulf Coast lawmakers who want the money to stay on the Coast. Attorney General Jim Hood, the only Democrat holding statewide elective office, also has said he favors keeping the BP settlement money reserved for the coast.

Reeves hosted a three-stop town hall circuit last fall on the issue. In at least one of those meetings, Coast residents demanded Reeves pledge his support to keeping the money within the three coastal counties.

Indeed, the potential legislative voting numbers overwhelming stack up against the Coast lawmakers: In the Senate, just seven of 52 senators are from the three Coast counties, and in the House, just 16 of 122 representatives are from the Coast.

The bill now moves to the House for further action.