$41 million from BP included in Coast projects

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Part of an anticipated $150 million check from BP for oil spill damages is being used to supplement state spending before it even arrives.

Lawmakers voted earlier this week to set aside $41 million of the anticipated payout to fund several projects within the three coastal counties heavily impacted by the 2010 disaster, said Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, chairman of the House appropriations committee.

Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville

“I had to beg and fight for that money,” Frierson said. “There was a big reluctance (from the leadership) to part ways with that money, but I really, really wanted to get it done.”

The BP money will be included in the fiscal year 2017 budget to help offset some of those cuts and will fund projects like a diabetes research clinic, Pascagoula Redevelopment Authority, general college scholarships and provided funds for Pearl River Community College to buy land for a Hancock County campus.

The $41 million from anticipated BP funds helped offset other expenditures, which became crucial after lowered revenue estimates late last week forced cuts to a number of state agencies’ appropriations.

Before the vote to spend the $41 million, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves repeatedly said he opposes using one-time money for recurring expenses. Frierson said the appropriations for Fiscal Year 2017 for the coast projects would not be a recurring expense on future budgets.

The check from BP is expected to arrive in June, officials said.

BP settled a lawsuit with the state of Mississippi and other Gulf states in 2015 after a 2010 oil spill pumped more than 130 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. In the agreement, Mississippi was granted $1.5 billion over a 17-year period. After this year’s $150 million check from BP,  the state will receive payments of $40 million a year between 2019-2033. Before the settlement was reached, BP had already paid the state $659 million, which was distributed to state entities for cleanup and recovery efforts.

What will happen with the remaining $109 million of the first check is still up in the air. Gov. Phil Bryant said in an interview Wednesday that he will leave it up to the Legislature to decide, hinting at the possibility of a special legislative session later this year to determine how to spend the cash.

“I think it’s prudent that we look at the opportunity to spend that money on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Bryant said. “Particularly, I think it’d be a good idea to look at spending it on tourism down there.”

Gulf Coast lawmakers in both parties have made clear their desire to keep as much of the BP money in the coastal counties as possible. Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, the House minority leader, introduced legislation this year that would have created a nonprofit to disburse 80 percent of the BP settlement funds to oil spill recovery efforts in counties and municipalities that were affected by the spill.

While that bill died in committee, Baria said he has closely followed the BP funding allocation talks during the session. He said the decision to spend $41 million of the first check on the coastal counties is admirable, though he criticized the leadership’s lack of communication during the process.

Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis

“I don’t think there was any input given from coastal officials like mayors or economic development officials,” Baria said. “Every dollar we get is meaningful because of what the people down there went through because of the spill … I don’t have a problem with this plan. I wish there would have been more communication, though.”

Lawmakers, led by a small groups of Republican budget committee members, voted this week to slash budgets in numerous state agencies for next fiscal year. Additionally, Bryant on Wednesday announced additional budget cuts for the current fiscal year, which ends in June – the second time this fiscal year the governor has cut state budgets.

According to Department of Revenue estimates, previous tax cuts have cost the state budget $168.4 million for the current fiscal year, and revenue projections released last week were grim. As the state becomes more and more strapped for cash, leaders will have to decide how to spend the little cash the state knows it will pull in.

With $109 million flowing into the state’s pocket in the upcoming days, lawmakers from the Coast, including Baria and Sen. Deborah Dawkins, D-Pass Christian, expressed concern this week that the BP money, which they believe should stay on the Coast, will end up in the hands of others across the state because of budget and tax cuts.

“It’s frustrating,” Baria said. “If that money goes elsewhere, the Coast will suffer as a result.”