GULFPORT — It doesn’t take long for Biloxi resident Terese Collins to get fiery when she’s talking about how Mississippi lawmakers should vote to spend $750 million of BP oil spill settlement money.
Collins, whose business was negatively affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizons oil spill, and other Gulf Coast residents shared suggestions ranging from continued ecological cleanup to more bike lanes with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and other state lawmakers Thursday night at the first of three BP settlement town halls sponsored by Reeves.
“The state of Mississippi needs to remember that we have still not been made whole,” Collins said after the event. “There are still tar balls washing up on the (Mississippi barrier) islands. … The funds need to come here to restore economic and ecological aspects so we can continue to send money back up to Jackson, which will ultimately help the entire state’s economy.”
The fight over how lawmakers should spend the money is not new, and it will continue to play out in the coming weeks. And it likely will become an intense battle during the 2017 regular legislative session.
In the portion of the settlement in question, Mississippi was granted $750 million, of which the payments will be staggered over a 15-year period.
The first portion of the settlement – $150 million – arrived in early July, after lawmakers in March earmarked $41 million of that check for specific projects within the coastal counties. The remainder – $109 million – is currently available and sitting in the state treasury, and how that can be spent will be left to a legislative vote, Gov. Phil Bryant said in April.
Gulf Coast lawmakers, with no known exceptions and irregardless of party affiliation, want the majority of the entire settlement spent on the three coastal counties. Reeves, along with Bryant and House Speaker Philip Gunn, has expressed his desire numerous times, including Thursday night, to keep as much of that total on the Coast as possible.
“The vast majority of the damages that occurred were on the Mississippi Gulf Coast … it’s the right thing to do,” Reeves said. “This is a challenge. This is not going to be easy. It’s going to take a joint effort for us to work with our colleagues and show them how, long term, it will benefit the entire state to grow the size of the economy in south Mississippi. What’s good for south Mississippi is good for all of Mississippi.”
Lawmakers from other parts of the state, however, have argued that the settlement funds should be distributed to their areas, too. In the 2016 regular legislative session, a bill that would have allocated much of the settlement to repairing roads and bridges across the state passed handily in the House by a vote of 101-20. The bill later died before moving to the Senate.
Here in Gulfport Thursday, about 100 residents gathered at the Lyman Community Center to offer suggestions to Reeves and coastal lawmakers in attendance at the hour-and-15-minute meeting.
A council of Coast mayors has drafted a bill that would create a Gulf Coast trust fund comprised of 80 percent of the settlement money. Another resident proposed sending public money to the Great Southern Golf Club, creating a state park. Another asked for wider roads and bike lanes, while another wants better drug enforcement and eradication efforts. Two different residents expressed desire to create an Olympic-regulation indoor swimming facility.
Four different attendees pleaded with Reeves and other lawmakers to spend the money wisely.
“Don’t treat this like a lottery,” Ocean Springs resident Shea Dobson told Reeves in front of the crowd.
Reeves sat attentively at the front of the room; he was joined up front by Rep. Greg Haney, R-Gulfport, Sen. Joseph Seymour, R-Ocean Springs, Rep. Jeff Guice, R-Ocean Springs, and Philip Moran, R-Kiln. Sen. Deborah Dawkins, D-Pass Christian, was also in attendance.
In the next two months, Reeves will attend two more town halls on the matter. At the end of the series, he will have hosted meetings in all three coastal counties.
Leaving the event, attendees expressed different feelings. When asked what he thought the chances were that the Coast would see a majority of the settlement, Ocean Springs resident Don Abrams replied “slim to none.”
Others expressed some optimism.
“If Tate says he’s going to be on our side, all we can do is believe him,” Dobson said after the event. “I’d like to see 100 percent of it down here, but I think 80 percent is a suitable goal. I want to be optimistic about it, but that’s hard with politics these days.”