Local

Worrisome plan for BP money emerges far from Mississippi Coast

The explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon rig were only the beginning of the oil disaster in April 2010.
The explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon rig were only the beginning of the oil disaster in April 2010. HANDOUT

The assault continues on the Coast’s share of BP money meant to right the economic damage inflicted by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

“The idea that has legs right now is let’s just split it 25 percent per congressional district,” said Hancock Holding President and CEO John Hairston, who met with the Sun Herald on Thursday. “At this moment in time, that is the most popular idea in the Legislature.”

That proposal worries Hairston, who in his role as the Gulf Coast Business Council’s Executive Committee chairman has joined the fight to keep most of that money on the Coast.

Why?

“It’s easy,” he said. “And everybody gets something. Everybody gets something.

“But that’s not why the settlement occurred. This isn’t the everybody-gets-something settlement. This is the Deepwater Horizon economic damages settlement.”

Hairston prefers something a little less easy, a little more visionary.

Simple test

The Council backs a plan to have an appointed board oversee the selection of projects based on a simple litmus test: “Does this create opportunities for the next generation of kids on the Coast?”

“If nothing changes, this will be an annual debate in the Legislature over the next 15 years,” Hairston said. “Do we really want to go through an annual hoo-hah? Will the results be as good as if you had a body, a commission, a board, whatever the state in its wisdom would like to put together, that has oversight over that set of expenditures?”

That idea is similar to a proposal that came out of meetings with supervisors, mayors and lawmakers on the Coast. A bill drafted by Biloxi attorney Gerald Blessey, who said it is based on a consensus among Coast officials that was reached after many meetings, would have the oversight board appointed by Coast leaders — the mayors and Board of Supervisors president in each of the three Coastal counties would vote on the member from their respective county. The draft bill, Blessey said, “is merely a starting point to encourage robust debate to form a Coast consensus.”

Hairston would rather statewide officials pick the board.

“Statewide appointment — it requires Senate confirmation, it requires a vetting, it requires PEER committee to eyeball, to take a look under the tent and see what your financial obligations and positions in business are. Do you have a vested interest?”

Hairston knows the process. He was vetted several times as he served on the Gaming Commission.

“That process has already been created at the state level,” he said. “I think the state is proud of that process and they will view that recommendation to have strictly mayoral appointments as circumventing the integrity test and the bias test.”

Coast has role

He said he expects the Coast would be well-represented on the board.

“I think you’ll have to have a balance of local subject matter expertise and independence,” he said. “That suggests there ought to be a mix. If you had an individual who is an economist from Jackson, I think they’d do a fine job, but I’m not sure they would specifically understand the needs of the Vietnamese shrimping community.”

But he said that decision would be left up to the state. The council is most concerned with getting the Coast’s fair share of the money and setting up a framework to assure that money is well spent.

What would be fair? A percentage equal to the percentage of damage that occurred on the Coast. He suspects that would be somewhere around 80 percent.

Hairston expects the legislative joint committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review will come up with that figure. Then the board would “ensure the projects are valuable and monitored to determine the expenditures were good.”

“I think the delegation will conclude whatever is right, what is fair, first,” Hairston said. “It’s our role to support them and to help them get to that point and help them with messaging. They’re the ones who have to make it happen; we’re the supporting cast.”

Time is short. The 2017 legislative session starts Jan. 3.

Paul Hampton: 228-896-2330, @JPaulHampton

  Comments