This is not how we wanted the BP economic damages settlement saga to play out this year in the Mississippi Legislature.
The Coast was supposed to go to Jackson with a unified voice to fight off any attempts by delegations in the northern part of the state to tap into the more than $700 million the state will receive from BP to help the Coast recover from the Deepwater Horizon disaster that devastated the tourism and fishing industries.
Tuesday, while the Coast was celebrating Mardi Gras, lawmakers in the House killed a Senate bill that we wrongly assumed represented that unified voice.
Turns out, the unity we have been hearing about for a couple of years has been exaggerated. Press releases and finger pointing have been flying.
The bill “does nothing to move us in the direction of helping the Coast,” said a release from 16 House members, both Republicans and Democrats, from the Coast.
“Today, we have taken a step backward with the House Appropriation Committee’s refusal to bring the ‘BP bill’ up for debate,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula. That bill, which passed the Senate unanimously, was co-authored by five Coast senators.
It is not a good look for the Coast. Lawmakers up north must be ecstatic.
While there isn’t a bill specifically dealing with the massive BP settlement alive in this year’s session, that doesn’t mean the money can’t be spent.
Last year, in the 11th hour of the legislative session, both the House and Senate passed an appropriation bill to spend $41 million of the initial $150 million payment. The spending went for projects as diverse as buying land for a Pearl River Community College expansion in Hancock County to $3.5 million to pay for this year’s Bicentennial Celebration.
We’re not debating the merits of any of the projects from last year.
There was no advance notice that the bill was coming on conference weekend, perhaps the busiest days of the session. It was passed with little opportunity for debate or input, either from the public or the Coast delegation.
Every day the BP money sits in a special fund up in Jackson under the control of the Legislature, there remains a chance the money will not be spent with the best interests of the Coast in mind.
We have known this money was coming for more than a year. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves was on the Coast on three separate occasions to listen to the people. There is Go Coast 20/20, the work of state and local leaders, which offers a litany of worthwhile projects.
It’s clear there is only one missing ingredient: agreement among the Coast’s senators and representatives. They need to sit down, overcome their differences, come up with a plan, write a bill and pass it.
We hope it’s not too late.
The editorial represents the views of the Sun Herald editorial board. Opinions of columnists and cartoonists are their own.