A $150 million settlement check from BP will be in the hands of Mississippi officials sometime this weekend, the Attorney General’s Office said this week.
A portion of the check – $41 million – was earmarked by lawmakers in March for projects in south Mississippi in fiscal year 2017.
It is unclear what state officials will do with the remaining $109 million coming to the state as part of the settlement over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
A number of state leaders, including Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, have expressed their desire to keep the money in south Mississippi. As recently as two weeks ago, Bryant met with several Coast lawmakers one-on-one to discuss potential spending options for the BP money.
“The governor is very committed to making sure that money stays on the Coast,” said Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, one of those who met with Bryant. “From the Senate leadership, there’s a strong consensus that the majority of the money should go to the Gulf Coast. The biggest question is not only how we get it on the Coast, but how we make sure it’s used for long term projects that’ll have return on investment for not only the Coast but the whole state.”
At the end of the regular legislative session in April, Bryant said he would consider calling a special legislative session to determine how to spend the money. In early June, Bryant spokesperson Clay Chandler said the governor was discussing the possibility of a special session to handle the BP money. Bryant has the option of calling a special session to address the BP funds at any time, or the matter could be addressed in the regular 2017 legislative session.
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, slashing jobs and revenue across the Gulf Coast for months.
In the settlement, Mississippi was granted $1.5 billion over a 17-year period. The payments of that settlement will be staggered, and this month’s $150 million is the first payment to be made.
In March, the Legislature earmarked $41 million of this $150 million check for the fiscal year 2017 budget. All of that money will fund projects in south Mississippi, including a diabetes research clinic, Pascagoula Redevelopment Authority, general college scholarships and to provide funds for Pearl River Community College to buy land for a Hancock County campus.
Numerous lawmakers from the Coast introduced legislation this past session that would have clearly marked how the money could be spent. No bills regarding the BP money were passed.
Attorney General Jim Hood this week said he would like to see the funds kept on the Coast and expressed his concern that the money might be used to help plug holes in next year’s budget.
“After years of litigation and work to identify the economic damage caused by this catastrophe, we reached an agreement that would help to make our coastal communities whole again,” Hood said in a press release. “However, I am deeply concerned that the state’s legislative leaders may use this payment to try to cover up their self-created budget hole.”
Because the Attorney General’s office handled the settlement, the check will be sent to his office. They, in turn, will send the check to Treasurer Lynn Fitch’s office, where it will be placed in the state’s Budget Contingency Fund.
“We were not only hit by Katrina, but then the BP oil spill and the great recession,” Tindell said. “When you lump those three things together, it had a major impact, especially since it was condensed in five or six years.
“Things are starting to pick up again down here, and I think a vetted process of ensuring we spend this money for things that will give us a return on investment could be a great thing for the whole state,” he said.