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House and Senate leaders traded barbs at each other Tuesday after a House committee killed a Senate bill that would have moved millions in BP oil spill settlement funds into a separate account for “projects benefiting the Gulf Coast.”
The two-page bill would have done one thing: create the new fund. The bill’s supporters said it would have answered a years-long question about how state officials should spend around $600 million awarded to the state over the next 16 years after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said he worked with Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, on the legislation.
“I don’t think the House members are going to be very well received when they talk to their constituents about this,” Reeves told Mississippi Today on Tuesday. “I’m afraid that five years from now, we’re going to look back at this being the day that the Coast delegation in the House nailed the final nail in their own coffin in this money going to the Coast, where I think it ought to be spent.”
Five different Gulf Coast representatives (three Republicans and two Democrats) who spoke with Mississippi Today on Tuesday afternoon claimed the Senate bill was too broad, and they wanted to add specific provisions that would designate how much money would move into the fund and how the fund could be spent.
A bipartisan group of 16 Gulf Coast members of the House issued a joint statement after the bill died Tuesday, saying the legislation “only gives the appearance of action.”
Gulf Coast resident Rep. John Read, R-Gautier, the House Appropriations chairman, expressed concern with what might happen to the bill had it passed through his committee. Read said he worried the non-Coast members of the Legislature would amend the bill on the House floor and “hijack that money for projects in other parts of the state.”
The potential legislative voting numbers overwhelming stack up against the Coast lawmakers. In the House, just 16 of 122 House members represent parts of the three coastal counties. Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, the House minority leader, said on Tuesday the bill died in part because Senate colleagues indicated that had the House made any revisions to the original bill, they would kill it.
Two Gulf Coast Republicans in the House also told Mississippi Today they heard the same thing from Senate members.
“The idea was floated to our Senate colleagues that we wanted to put some substance in it and put something real in it, but they said no,” Baria said. “We didn’t want to go through shedding the blood on our end, knowing they (the Senate) were going to kill it on their end.”
But Read said that the death of the BP bill “had nothing to do with the Senate,” and instead said it had to do with concern over what would happen on the House floor.
Reeves, in an interview with Mississippi Today on Tuesday, also denied that the Senate had signaled it would not accept amendments to the bill.
He provided a letter that Wiggins wrote on Monday to Gulf Coast Republicans in the House. In that letter, addressed to 13 Gulf Coast Republicans in the House, including Read, Wiggins pleaded with the House members to pass the bill.
“If this means amending the bill with a strike-all agreeable to the chairman, then so be it,” Wiggins wrote in the letter. A strike-all is when one chamber removes all of the language passed by the other chamber and inserts its own language.
Baria said he did not receive the letter, and because he is not consulted by Republican leadership, he “must rely on the words of my colleagues.”
Reeves criticized the House delegation for killing the bill, saying the bill was “a good starting point” and pointed to the bill gaining a unanimous passing vote in the Senate.
“Look, this is a legislative process, and there are a lot of things that could have been done to the bill that we would’ve been happy to consider,” Reeves said. “But what I told the Coast delegation from the beginning that this was going to be hard, and the only way it was going to get done was if everyone was in agreement and worked together on it.”
“In the Senate, we had Republicans and Democrats all on the same page,” Reeves continued. “I’m just really surprised that the Coast delegation in the House is taking credit for killing this.”
BP, the multinational oil and gas company, agreed to pay Mississippi $750 million for economic damages related to the spill which impacted the entire Gulf Coast region.
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.
All Gulf Coast delegates, regardless of party affiliation, have ardently lobbied to keep the majority of the money in the three coastal counties. Others across the state see the money as a much-needed revenue gift for infrastructure improvements or other budgetary needs.
Reeves 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.
House Speaker Philip Gunn has remained relatively mum on the issue, but Rep. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, told Mississippi Today on Tuesday that the speaker has consistently told the Coast delegation “he would support a specific plan if we brought him one.”
Reeves has publicly lobbied for the BP funds to be kept on the Coast. He 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. He replied: “I will do all I can to bring the Coast as much of this money as possible.”
“It is extremely disappointing for all Coast residents to see this issue succumb to the politics of the House chamber, where the concern for ‘bringing home the bacon’ outweighed doing what was right and the original intent of these funds,” Wiggins said in a statement Tuesday.
“Fiscal responsibility dictates spending state dollars in the right places,” he said. “As a result of the House’s inaction, these funds remain subject to the general appropriation process and are ripe for the picking.”