The BP settlement dominated the legislative portion of Leadership Gulf Coast’s Government Day on Wednesday at the Knight Nonprofit Center.
“We’ve talked about that at length everywhere we’ve been,” said state Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula. “It’s going to be an ugly fight. I do think we have a really good working group here on the Coast. All the Coast senators and representatives are trying to be on the same page, making sure we’re one voice working together.”
And Republican Reps. Greg Haney of Gulfport and Scott DeLano of Biloxi and Rep. David Baria of Bay St. Louis, the lone Democrat on the panel, agreed they wanted a plan to bring most all the money — the almost $110 million already in the state’s treasury and the $600 million that will be paid over the next 17 years — back to the Coast so they would not have to fight the same battle over and over.
But that, Watson said, likely won’t happen without the active support of Leadership Gulf Coast and other civic groups.
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“You all have spheres of influence,” he said. “The folks you know around different parts of the state, please call them and tell them ... why it’s important to get your representatives and your senators on board with us down here on the Coast.”
Watson said an investment on the Coast would pay dividends for the rest of the state.
The folks you know around different parts of the state, please call them and tell them ... why it’s important to get your representatives and your senators on board with us down here on the Coast.
Sen. Michael Watson
“As the Coast goes, so goes Mississippi,” he said.
The Coast delegation’s problem is it is badly outnumbered.
“We’re going to be playing defense,” DeLano said. “There are a lot of people in the northern part of the state lined up to get their fingers in the BP money.”
DeLano said he hopes the Legislature passes the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund, which passed the House but died in the Senate last year, that established a trust fund to handle the BP money.
“We’re going to have a fight in the House and Senate about how much of that money goes into the fund,” he said.
Baria said there are several reasons to divert the money away from annual appropriations and into the trust fund. He said a 1-cent sales-tax increase was added to pay for classroom supplies. But the classrooms have never received 100 percent of that money.
“The Legislature takes the position it doesn’t matter why the money got there, under what paradigm the money got there — the Legislature has the authority to appropriate the money.”
Haney said the plan from upstate that he hears the most about would be to divide the money by congressional district, with the Coast district getting 40 percent and the other three getting 20 percent each.
“That’s their game plan,” he said.
The Coast does have powerful allies, though. Both Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves have said they believe most of the money should be spent on the Coast. House Speaker Philip Gunn hasn’t made as definitive a statement.
“What matters is what leadership wants,” Watson said. “If the lieutenant governor says, ‘You know what? That money is going to the Coast,’ that money will come out of the Senate going to the Coast. And if the speaker and his leadership group says that money is going to the Coast, it’s going to the Coast.”