State marine agency in limbo over power struggle, legislative COVID-19 outbreak

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A major state agency – charged in part with marine law enforcement – remains in limbo over a power struggle over spending Gulf restoration money, and because of a coronavirus outbreak at the Capitol.

Lawmakers set the rest of a $6 billion budget and left town July 1 still at an impasse over the Department of Marine Resources roughly $23 million state budget. They had plans to return within a week and haggle out DMR’s budget, but a COVID-19 outbreak at the Capitol has infected at least 26 legislators and 10 staffers, and the Capitol and Legislature are now shut down for at least two weeks.

Without a budget, DMR Director Joe Spraggins on Wednesday said the agency that regulates fisheries and provides marine law enforcement is operating at a bare minimum, meeting federal mandates and emergency patrols and rescues. He said most of the agency’s 175 employees are furloughed until the Legislature can return and come to agreement and pass DMR’s annual budget.

Local law enforcement and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks are helping cover DMR’s patrolling duties.

The impasse is over control and oversight of projects for nearly $52 million in Gulf oil and gas revenue Mississippi is receiving this year.

Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas receive money from the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA), a revenue sharing program for offshore oil and gas producing states in the Gulf. GOMESA funds can be used for coastal protection, conservation, restoration and other projects. Revenue has increased in recent years.

DMR and other agencies vet projects for the GOMESA funds, with the governor’s office having final approval. But some GOMESA projects funded in the past – under new Gov. Tate Reeves’ predecessors — have been questioned as to whether they are helping coastal restoration and protection or just pet political projects.

Millions in GOMESA funds have been granted to build boardwalks near casinos, a planned aquarium in Gulfport – including a tram system threatened to be “de-obligated” for not meeting GOMESA requirements — and other projects critics have said don’t meet the intended purpose.

Sen. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, said many Coast lawmakers and leaders wonder why with all the funds from GOMESA, BP oil spill settlements and other programs, the Coast continues to have ecological problems not being addressed.

“All these programs and projects are supposed to go to restoration, but there’s no central game plan for protecting or mitigating natural resources, just little pot shots,” DeLano said. “We’re still having all these constant beach closures (from pollution), after all this money spent. How are we not able to address the problem of effluent, or raw sewage, going into the Sound? … Instead we’re building boardwalks and outfalls that don’t do anything to improve water quality or drainage, just the aesthetics of the pipes.”

Led by Coast lawmakers, the Legislature was moving to take more control and oversight of GOMESA spending through DMR’s annual budget bill. But Reeves viewed this as an attempt by the legislative branch to take authority that has been with the executive branch for nearly 15 years.

Reeves said: “House leaders are dug in on earmarking favored projects with recovery funds – huge change” and criticized the legislative stalemate as shutting down DMR.

“With no budget, DMR can’t operate,” Reeves said last week. “It has shut down.”

DeLano said the Senate, because of so many other pressing needs, agreed to back down on taking more control of the spending and give the new governor “a chance to fix things.” But House leaders remained entrenched and lawmakers left without approving a DMR budget.

“We’ve put the governor’s office on notice we’re watching, but the Senate backed off and agreed to give him time to fix things and in deference to all the other thing’s he’s got going on right now,” DeLano said.

DMR Director Joe Spraggins on Wednesday said the agency that regulates fisheries and provides marine law enforcement is operating at a bare minimum, meeting federal mandates and emergency patrols and rescues. He said most of the agency’s 175 employees are furloughed until the Legislature can return and come to agreement and pass DMR’s annual budget.

Local law enforcement and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks are helping cover DMR’s patrolling duties.

On Wednesday Reeves said his office was able to work with DMR to find federal and emergency funds to keep operating the “critical part of the agency” and would continue to try to keep it afloat. But it’s uncertain when lawmakers can safely return to pass a permanent budget for the year.

“In my opinion it’s too high of a risk for the Legislature to come back in now and deal with that issue,” Reeves said Wednesday. “It’s not fair to staff.”