The Legislature is pulling $9.5 million for Gulf Coast projects from the reserve fund from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill — despite refusing to address how the entire fund should be used.
That fund currently holds $109.6 million. If Gov. Phil Bryant signs the bill authorizing funding for the three projects, the total would sit right around $100 million. Last year, lawmakers also earmarked $42.6 million from the BP settlement fund for projects based on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“This bill has withdrawals from the Budget Contingency Fund (where the BP money sits), and it’s unfortunate it’s come to this after seeing BP spending legislation fail earlier this year,” Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said on the Senate floor late Monday night.
The years-long question of how to spend the BP settlement funds provided fireworks this session.
Earlier this session, the House killed a Senate bill, sponsored by Wiggins, that would set aside the roughly $600 million awarded to the state over the next 16 years into a separate fund. The two-page bill simply created the fund and included language that mandated any transfers would have to benefit the Gulf Coast.
A bipartisan group of Gulf Coast House members penned a letter the day they killed the legislation, saying the bill was not specific enough.
Gulf Coast resident Rep. John Read, R-Gautier, the House Appropriations chairman, said he worried the non-Coast members of the House would amend the bill on the floor and “hijack that money for projects in other parts of the state.”
In turn, Wiggins and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves sharply criticized the House delegation for killing the bill.
“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 last month. “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.”
Wiggins, before the Senate voted on the bill Monday night, made a second plea to Gov. Phil Bryant to include the BP settlement spending issue in an anticipated special session. On Monday, a spat between Republican leaders in both houses over financing for the Transportation Department forced a missed deadline on that appropriation bill, which forces a special session so that the agency will be funded next fiscal year.
“It’s because of the House that we don’t have a plan for 100 percent of the BP money to be set aside, and it’s because of the House that we have to go to a special session,” Wiggins said. “Well dang it, if the House wants to do that and we’re going to have a special session and cost taxpayers $30,000, BP dollars are worth discussing in that special session.”
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 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 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.”
With just hours before the 2017 session ends, no legislation dealing with how BP money should be spent remains alive.
“This issue is too important to be left unresolved,” Wiggins said in a statement Monday night. “I welcome the opportunity to debate the best process to ensure that the Gulf Coast gets the funds it so rightfully deserves.”
The three projects, inserted into Senate Bill 3015, are $5 million for Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, $3 million for the Mississippi Oyster Restoration Project in the Mississippi Sound and $1.5 million for the National Diabetes and Obesity Research Center in Biloxi.