Gov. Phil Bryant this week offered his solution to the contentious issue of how to spend $109 million in oil spill settlement funds: bank the money for a year so the Legislature can plan better how to spend it.
What to do with the $109 million from petroleum giant BP from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling accident is shaping up as one of the hottest issues of the upcoming legislative session that begins in less than 50 days.
In his overall fiscal year 2018 budget recommendation, Bryant suggests placing the money the state received earlier this year from BP in its own separate reserve account. Starting in 2018, under Bryant’s suggestion, lawmakers would be able to pull from that fund for economic development projects on the Coast.
The first portion of the BP’s $750 million settlement – $150 million – arrived in early July. But lawmakers in March 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.
“I would recommend that most of the money be spent on public projects related to the prosperity and sustainability of the Coast, where the oil spill did the most damage,” Bryant said in the proposal. The proposal aligns with the governor’s previously stated desire to keep the majority of the BP settlement money in the three Gulf Coast counties.
Lawmakers will almost certainly clash over what to do with the BP funds during the legislative session, which begins Jan. 4. Gulf Coast lawmakers, with no known exceptions and irregardless of party affiliation, want the majority of the settlement checks to remain on the Coast, which was directly affected by the spill.
Bryant and House Speaker Philip Gunn have previously expressed their desire to keep the money on the Coast. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has hosted two BP settlement town halls in two months on the Coast and has promised residents there he would do what he could to ensure a majority of the settlement stayed on the Coast.
But the potential legislative voting numbers overwhelming stack up against the Coastal lawmakers. In the House, 16 of 122 representatives are from the three Coast counties. In the Senate, seven of 52 senators are from the Coast counties.
Many officials in other parts of the state see the settlement checks as a way to fund much-needed projects, like repair of roads and bridges or implementation of public education projects.
“I definitely appreciate the governor looking out for the Coast, but ultimately the Legislature will make the final say,” said Sen. Brice Wiggins, D-Pascagoula. “His proposal to have it set aside for Coastal projects, I think, in theory, is really good. I appreciate that the governor is on the record saying the money be spent on the Coast.”
Many lawmakers tried to settle the matter during the 2016 session. Numerous bills, on both sides of the debate, were introduced that would direct that the money be used in various ways. None passed.
House minority leader Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, introduced legislation last session that would have created a separate entity to disburse 80 percent of the BP settlement funds to oil spill recovery efforts in counties and municipalities that were affected by the spill. That bill, along with most others dealing with the BP funds, died in committee.
This week, Baria said he appreciated the governor’s desire to keep the money on the Coast, but he questioned whether leaving the fund in the hands of lawmakers is prudent. Sticking with the concept of his bill from last session, he suggested creating a separate board or commission made up of appointees or Coastal officials, who would then get to decide how the money is spent.
“The Legislature has a track record of getting in a bind and robbing from accounts that were dedicated to other particular purposes,” Baria said. “While everyone is dealing in good faith right now, what if the governor gets appointed to Trump’s cabinet, or there’s a (U.S. Senate) opening and (Gunn or Reeves) get called up? There would be new people in those positions who might not be as likely bound to previous decisions that were made. You just never know what’s going to happen.”
Even those outside the Legislature have ideas about how to spend the money. A council of Gulf Coast mayors drafted a bill this offseason that would divert 80 percent of the settlement funds into the hands of a trust made up of Coast officials.
Last month, Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, a former lawmaker, said he wants $1.5 million in settlement funds for tourism projects in the river city.
“That BP money needs to go statewide,” Flaggs said in October. “The BP oil spill affected all of us. It stopped tourism on the Coast, but it stopped it all along the (Mississippi) river and Delta, too.”