The Coast legislative delegation has just weeks to come together with a plan to snare most of the money from a BP economic damages settlement. And, they’re not that close yet.
That was apparent at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce’s annual Pre-Legislative Briefing, where six members of the delegation who are either chairmen or vice-chairmen of committees were questioned about five priorities: BP, budget and appropriations, education, public safety and infrastructure.
Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport, the leader of the Black Caucus, said discussions about BP money haven’t been inclusive.
“Our delegation has not come together as a whole,” she said. “I have missed out. I asked where we’re going to meet, about how we’re going to bring up BP. And, no response. It is going to take all of us and I am actually now in a position, being the chair of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, that we could possibly work out something to put a little money in the Delta, I can almost assure we could get the votes we need to push this forward. It’s going to take all of us collectively to work together.
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“This is not a party issue. This is a Gulf Coast issue. It’s very very imperative that we all work together. That we’re all included in the conversation.”
Last year, Sen. Brice Wiggins proposed putting the bulk of the $750 million settlement in a Restoration Reserve Fund and spending it on the Coast. Wiggins’ bill sailed through the Senate on a unanimous vote but stalled in the House Appropriations Committee.
That was the first BP question from the moderator District Attorney Joel Smith: What happened?
“I would have liked to see something come out of out committee last year,” said Rep. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi. “I would have liked to have seen a vote on the House floor. I know you wanted that. We all wanted that. We all wanted that BP money to come to the Coast.
“But we didn’t have the votes to do that. We had to be very careful because we know there’s going to be a bad fight and there’s going to be a lot of people from across the state want to take this money. We only have 11 Coast delegation House members out of 122. We have to have our ducks in a row. We have to really know how we’re going to win this. We can’t just go up there and say, ‘Look, this is my bill, pass this bill.’ We know that’s not going to work.”
One thing the delegation seemed to agree on is that a crucial date for the bill is Jan. 10, the day of the popular Coast Legislative Reception. The reception is normally a low-key chance to chat and sample some of the best of Coast seafood. This year, the chamber and the delegation want to make that reception about talking to the rest of the state about the BP money.
“We’re asking you to stay overnight, staying over until Thursday morning,” said Chamber CEO Adele Lyons. “We plan to be in a place in the rotunda where it’s very obvious to the rest of the state that we are there. We have a banner in the back of the room; we’re asking you to sign that. We’ll take it to the Legislative Reception, to the Capitol.
“We need to make sure our voice is heard around the rest of the state — that we’re happy to have you come, have some gumbo, some oysters on us — but now it’s time for us to really make sure they actively and aggressively know what our message is.”
Lyons also asked the delegation to have that unified message to take to the Capitol.
“We’re asking that the legislative delegation give us one plan that we can all support and rally around to aggressively advocate for,” she said. “We’re counting on you to do that and you can count on us to aggressively support that.”