After months of debate over the issue, just one bill regarding how to spend millions in settlement funds from the 2010 BP oil spill made it through committee this session.
Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, and three other Coast senators sponsored the bill, which would create a new, separate reserve fund for the BP money.
The bill states that the only funds that could be drawn from it “shall be used for projects that will benefit the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
The bill, which faces a Friday deadline for Senate passage, passed unanimously through the Senate Appropriations committee last week in 33 seconds with no debate.
“I was happy to see it move through committee,” Wiggins said Monday.
The question of how to spend BP money has stoked tempers and spurred debate over the past several months.
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.
Gulf Coast delegates, regardless of party affiliation, want the majority of the money to stay on the Coast. Others across the state see the money as a much-needed revenue gift for infrastructure improvements or other budgetary needs.
Legislative leaders 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.
Lt. Gov. Tate 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.
In return, Reeves said he would do “all he could,” but whipping the votes needed to keep the money on the Coast “is not going to be easy.”
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.
“I appreciate Sen. Wiggins for introducing this legislation as it is a positive step toward ensuring the vast majority of the settlement is spent in the three coastal counties,” Reeves said in a release on Monday.
“Every time I visited the Coast last year, I heard from residents and community leaders about the impact the BP disaster had, and in some cases continues to have, on the Gulf Coast. It is important that we spend these dollars on projects that will boost the economy of South Mississippi, and therefore the entire state.”
In a proposal that aligns with Wiggins’, Gov. Bryant has suggested placing the BP money 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.
In the 2016 regular 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.
Vicksburg Mayor and former legislator George Flaggs has publicly said he wants $1.5 million from the settlement for tourism projects on the river city.
“The BP oil spill affected all of us,” Flaggs said last fall. “It stopped tourism on the Coast, but it stopped it all along the (Mississippi) river and Delta, too.”
Wiggins’ bill is on the Senate calendar and is can be debated on the floor at any time this week. Lawmakers face a Thursday deadline for first action on all general bills and a Friday deadline for passing those bills through the chamber a bill originated in.