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How to start a battle royal at the Legislature

Oil can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 50 miles southeast of Venice on Louisiana’s tip, as a large plume of smoke rises from fires on BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in April 2010.
Oil can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 50 miles southeast of Venice on Louisiana’s tip, as a large plume of smoke rises from fires on BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in April 2010. AP File

If things shake out in Jackson the next three months the way Sen. Michael Watson predicts, they should sell tickets.

“We’re going to fight and claw and scream and kick and shove,” Watson, a Pascagoula Republican, said.

People will and do part with their hard-earned money to see such a spectacle under the banner of mixed martial arts. But Watson was speaking figuratively. No one in the Mississippi Legislature has gone full South Korean Parliament and started swinging at their colleagues.

And admission to the Legislature is free, although seating in the gallery is limited. Still, Coast lawmakers have been doing their best to get the Coast’s movers and shakers to join the fight for more than $700 million in BP economic damages money yet to be spent.

Watson was speaking to the Leadership Gulf Coast class one day in December when he likened the legislative process to UFC.

“You all have spheres of influence,” said Watson. “Tell (the Legislature) what the Coast saw.”

What the Coast saw was empty stores and restaurants after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and gushed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The hamburger shop

Rep. Scott DeLano said many of the Coast’s stories have yet to be told by a self-reliant people often too proud to talk about how bad they are hurting.

“The Coast has to do a better job of discussing these issues,” he said. “The little restaurant shop that sold hamburgers on Pass Road that couldn’t get their employees to show up because BP was giving them $2,000 a week for their employees but didn’t give the property owner a dime. Eventually in this particular case, this restaurant closed.”

He said colleagues in the northern parts of the state mistakenly believe the Coast has already been made whole.

“We need you all to come up tell the story, tell your personal stories so our colleagues can put a face to the problem and try to move it away from a political fight that it will unfortunately become,” he said.

The Coast delegation wants the money to go into a trust fund controlled by people on the Coast and out of the reach of the Legislature. The state has received all of the money. BP has paid $150 million, and of that a little over $40 million has been spent. Starting in 2018, the state will receive $40 million a year for more than a decade.

“We’re all holding our cards close to our chests because we know what the guys in north Mississippi will do,” DeLano, a Republican from Biloxi, said. “As soon as they see our document, they’re going to start poking holes in it. They’ll put their spin on it.”

How the sausage is made

That’s when someone in the audience wondered who would decide where the money would go.

Rep. David Baria, the Democratic minority leader from Bay St. Louis, said few knew where the money was spent until a massive appropriations bill appeared on the House floor that contained the $40 million in spending that went to several projects in South Mississippi.

“The process for deciding how the money is spent usually involves a very small number of the leadership’s inner circle,” he said. “But if we divert it to our local entity, then it will be much more transparent.”

There will probably be a fight over the state of the roads. Some want the state to raise its fuel tax to pay for repairs to the state’s roads and bridges. But every tax increase proposal quickly attracts opposition — in this case on both sides of the aisle.

Many Republicans are leery of any tax increase, and a lot of Democrats don’t like the idea that consumption taxes, such as fuel and sales taxes, are a heavy burden on poor people.

“Infrastructure funding is going to be a big issue,” said Baria. “We don’t notice so much down on the Coast because we got a lot of new roads and bridges and things like that in the wake of (Hurricane) Katrina, but if you go inland in our state we have thousands of bridges that have essentially been deemed unsafe.”

That, he said, causes school districts to have to reroute buses, keeping children on the buses longer and burning up more gas in the process.

The process for deciding how the money is spent usually involves a very small number of the leadership’s inner circle.

Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis

“We have to do something about it, but the way we fund it is where we end up butting heads sometimes,” said Baria. “You’ll find many people in my party are opposed to regressive taxes where you put a larger burden on people who are already struggling in our state and already pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than the wealthy do.”

School funding

There’s a chance the state’s school funding formula will be overhauled as well. EdBuild, a New Jersey nonprofit, has been studying the formula and talking to educators. Its report is expected in a few weeks, according to Lt. Gov. Tate Reeve’s spokeswoman Laura Hipp.

Baria said everyone agrees education needs attention.

“We’re all in favor of figuring out the best way to fully fund K through 12 education,” he said. “EdBuild is looking at our current formula. We’re probably going to see some changes to that.”

Paul Hampton: 228-896-2330, @JPaulHampton

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