Debate over BP fine money is leading to a hardcore political battle in Jackson (updated 6:15 p.m.)

glpender@sunherald.comApril 25, 2012 

JACKSON — An effort by the Legislature to control BP oil disaster fine money expected to come to Mississippi spawned a political battle at the Capitol between Senate leaders and the House and governor, and has the Coast delegation divided.

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, early Wednesday threatened to hold up Gov. Phil Bryant’s reappointment of Bill Walker to head the Department of Marine Resources if the House kills a bill Wiggins co-authored granting legislative control of BP money. As chairman of the Ports and Marine Resources Committee, Wiggins is set to preside over a confirmation hearing for Walker today. Senate ratification of the appointment, although required by law, would usually be perfunctory.

By Wednesday evening, Wiggins said he had met with the Governor’s Office and others and was hopeful a compromise could be reached, and was uncertain whether he might try to derail Walker’s appointment.

Both sides in the debate say they’re trying to ensure the money is spent to help the Coast recover from the disaster and not co-opted by other interests or regions. Proponents of Senate Bill 2898 say the Legislature is the best arbiter of that spending.

Opponents say the state’s environmental agencies, which answer to the governor, should be in charge. They say the state legislation could run afoul of federal legislation and jeopardize or delay the state receiving the money or further settlements with BP. They also say the state legislation is premature, since Congress hasn’t passed its pending bill directing money to the Gulf instead of federal coffers.

“We all want the same thing, to make sure that this money is properly disbursed to the areas directly impacted by the oil spill,” said state Rep. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi. “But I think this (state) bill is premature and could have some unintended consequences.”

A similar battle ensued when the state received billions for Hurricane Katrina recovery, with then-Gov. Haley Barbour winning out and state agencies controlling most of the spending. Wiggins noted that that resulted in some Katrina funds being spent on projects far inland from the storm’s destruction.

Opponents say legislative control brings more danger of money being redirected from Coast recovery than state agency/gubernatorial oversight.

Wiggins said the bill’s language would prevent that.

Others disagree. “As is, the bill includes too many eligible activities that aren’t restricted to South Mississippi,” said Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula. “In its current form, eligible activities include: ‘programs to promote tourism in Mississippi’ and activities for ‘workforce development and job training in Mississippi.’ While these are all great initiatives, this money is for the Mississippi Gulf Coast, not for a museum in North Mississippi. I am extremely concerned that the Coast will not receive its fair share, which should be the vast majority of the funding.”

Wiggins, after hearing the governor had concerns over the bill and that House leaders were talking about killing it, on Wednesday threw down the gauntlet on Walker’s Senate confirmation.

“I certainly would hate to have concerns about Dr. Walker’s confirmation going through,” Wiggins said early Wednesday. “The citizens of the Gulf Coast want to see both Dr. Walker reconfirmed and this legislation passed. If the idea is to bottle it up (in the House) then I would hate for the confirmation of the governor’s appointment get bottled up in the Senate. That bill is that important in my opinion.” But after a late meeting with the Governor’s Office, Wiggins said Wednesday evening, “They made some good points and we’re trying to work on language everyone can live with.”

On Walker’s confirmation, Wiggins said, “We’ll see what happens tomorrow. I haven’t changed my position (on wanting the bill passed).”

Longtime DMR Director Walker appeared nonplussed by the threat.

“They’ll do what they’re going to do,” Walker said. “I’m scheduled to be considered (Thursday). If it happens, that’s good. If it doesn’t, I’ve been trying to retire for two years anyway.” Watson said: “The Department of Marine Resources is vital to the ongoing recovery efforts on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and it’s unfortunate that Dr. Walker’s nomination is being held captive for an unrelated purpose, especially a bill that isn’t very good for the Coast.”

BP faces billions of dollars in federal Clean Water Act penalties from its Gulf disaster, expected to range from $5 billion to $20 billion. The RESTORE Act pending in Congress would direct 80 percent of those penalties to the Gulf instead of the general treasury, with large portions going to the five Gulf states. The U.S. Senate passed a version of the act, but it’s still pending in the House, and has been coupled with other, controversial measures such as the Keystone Pipeline.

Bryant’s office had no comment about Wiggins’ threat to hold up Walker’s confirmation and hasn’t said whether SB 2898, if passed as currently written, would be subject to a veto. Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock said: “We have not received the bill from the Legislature but the governor would certainly be concerned if the bill would allow BP funding to be spent in areas other than the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”

Wiggins said: “The chief goal of this bill is to ensure that any of the RESTORE funds are used for purposes central to the Coast and coastal restoration, tourism and workforce development … I think it’s no secret that similar federal (Katrina) funds in the past have gotten redistributed for unintended purposes … The Legislature is constitutionally charged with being the proper stewards of the people’s money … I’m sure the governor, having previously been the lieutenant governor, understands the importance of the oversight duties of the Legislature.”

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