Business

Why the Coast rejected a plan to get a large chunk of $700 million in BP money

Jerry St. Pe, center, makes a point during a meeting of the Gulf Coast Business Council on Tuesday. Members rejected the House proposal for how to spend BP money awarded to the state.
Jerry St. Pe, center, makes a point during a meeting of the Gulf Coast Business Council on Tuesday. Members rejected the House proposal for how to spend BP money awarded to the state. meperez@sunherald.com

Yes, it was the third time the Mississippi Legislature failed to pass a bill that would determine how $700 million in BP funds would be spent, but Coast business leaders said a plan presented Monday, HB 1185, isn't good for South Mississippi.

By a two-thirds vote in an opinion poll, members of the Gulf Coast Business Council said they would not take a House proposal to carve 35 percent of the money BP provided to the state for damages from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, leaving 65 percent for the Coast.

Next year is an election year, and the members decided it is better to try again than to ask Gov. Phil Bryant to call a special session within a session and try to get a compromise bill passed this week.

Even more important than diverting 35 percent of the money to other parts of the state, the majority of the more than 100 people who attended the GCBC meeting at the Knight Nonprofit Center on Tuesday morning said they don't like that the legislators can come back at any time and change the rules or take more money.

Gary Rikard, director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, explains on July 22, 2015, how the money from the BP oil spill settlement will be distributed. Rikard became director of MDEQ in 2014 after Trudy Fisher resigned.

"I would rather have two-thirds spent wisely and prudently than 90 percent split with no value," business council Chairman John Hairston said. Currently there is no accountability or any spending mechanism for how the money will be distributed, he said.

Ashley Edwards, president of the Gulf Coast Business Council, said the state House and Senate committees working to reach a compromise bill were in total agreement by Monday's 8 p.m. deadline on how the money should be split and how it should be administered.

But with less than 20 minutes to go, the House submitted a list of $79 million in road projects to be funded out of the $100 million currently in the BP appropriations fund.

"All up front. All right now," said Hairston. These aren't new projects, he said, but a list of work that was rejected by the Senate in a roads bill this session. Only two projects were on the Coast.

Hariston said the Coast still would have to go back to the Legislature every year to approve any investment of the BP funds.

Harrison County Supervisor Beverly Martin said Coast leaders think South Mississippi should get 100 percent of the money provided by BP but were willing to compromise and allow up to 20 percent of the money to go to other parts of the state. "I've never heard them go to 35 percent," she said.

Hairston said while he, Edwards and GCBC member Jerry Levens were in Jackson trying to get a bill passed and as much money as possible for the Coast, "Lots of folks were up there from other parts of the state working against us."

Some of the problems lie with members of the Coast delegation, Hairston and Levens said, although they wouldn't mention names.

Hairston said the House Coastal delegation made it crystal clear, "This is the best deal you're going to get, and you should accept this."

The business council said with their vote the delegation should come up with a plan that works for the Coast.

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