Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ final town hall — which sought ideas on how to spend part of Mississippi’s BP settlement — revealed no new ideas but did uncover some opposition to old ones.
The state has received $150 million of the $750 million it will receive over the next 17 years as part of the economic damages portion of the settlement. Of the $150 million, $108 million remains to be spent.
A couple of people asked lawmakers not to spend any of the money on ultra-high-speed internet service.
“In hindsight, of the mistakes the state of Alabama made, one was the fiber ring,” Eric Schweinsberg told the crowd of about 100 at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Fine Arts Auditorium. “The free market will take care of it. I have internet, I can watch YouTube, I can have a PlayStation going, there are so many things I can do with less than one gig per second.
“We do not need that. The free market takes care of it faster, better. I think a big mistake would be to put a lot of money to a fiber ring. We have roads in Pass Christian that are still unpaved.”
He called Alabama’s fiber ring a money pit that hadn’t been adequately maintained.
Mayors Andrew “FoFo” Gilich of Biloxi, Billy Hewes of Gulfport and Thomas Schafer of Diamondhead are among those backing such a plan on the Coast. Gov. Phil Bryant pledged $15 million of RESTORE Act money, the federal portion of the settlement to the plan.
Others suggested spending some of the money on commercial fishing piers; bike trails; a wildlife-rescue service; highways and bridges; and public-safety equipment and buildings.
But Reeves cautioned them against projects that could be built anywhere, because that would be hard to sell to lawmakers needing similar improvements in their districts.
“Look for things that are unique to the Coast,” he said.
Little was said about a trust fund some would like to set up under the oversight of an independent board to pay for long-range projects on the Coast.
“That’s a little bit harder sell to senators from other parts of the state,” Reeves said.
He again reminded them the Coast does not have the votes to get anything done alone. He said the Coast has to make the case that helping its economy helps the rest of the state.
“I’m not sure in my conversations with various groups along the Coast that everyone fully recognizes and appreciates the challenge we face in convincing our friends and peers from other parts of the state that we ought to spend the vast majority of this money on South Mississippi.
“The argument that is going to work, and it’s an argument that I believe very, very strongly, is as follows: We have to identify projects as (moderator Jerry St. Pé) said, that are going to be transformational and transitional in growing the size of the economy in South Mississippi. Because what’s good for the economy in South Mississippi is good for the economy for all Mississippi.”