State Politics

Sen. Wiggins has plan for BP settlement money

Sen. Brice Wiggins
Sen. Brice Wiggins AP

Sen. Brice Wiggins has filed a bill that would put most of the BP economic damages money into the Public Trust Tidelands Fund.

Senate Bill 2285 proposes that 95 percent of the more than $100 million in BP settlement funds that sit in the Gulf Restoration Fund, recently created by Gov. Phil Bryant, be deposited annually into the Public Trust Tidelands Fund.

“The Tidelands Trust Fund is already an established entity and the process for adopting projects is already relatively familiar to citizens and entities on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said in a news release. “However, equally as significant, is that it is overseen and appropriated by the Mississippi Gulf Coast legislative delegation.”

This bill would amend the Tidelands law to allow projects of economic development, including infrastructure, be funded through the Tidelands Trust Fund. The existing process for administering Tideland funds would extend to BP settlement dollars as long as the state receives payments.

The BP money left from the first $150 million installment of a $750 million settlement to fix economic damages from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf is expected to be the biggest battle of the session. Other Coast officials and lawmakers have proposed setting up a special trust fund overseen by a Coast-centric board. Lawmakers from other parts of the state have been talking about dividing the money evenly among the state’s four congressional districts.

Wiggins bill is the first to be filed that deals with BP money. The Tidelands fund is administered by the Secretary of State’s Office and the Department of Marine Resources.

DMR accepts applications for projects each year and those are reviewed by an in-house Tidelands administrator, according to the DMR website. The projects are then reviewed by a Merit Review Committee composed of DMR staff and local experts in marine scientists using project criteria established by the Commission on Marine Resources. The Legislature, though, has the final say on the appropriation of Tidelands money.

The DMR receives Tidelands money each December and distributes it to the selected projects.

Recognizing that the settlement funds were for “economic damages to the State,” the bill proposes that 5 percent of the funds go to the general fund for appropriation by the Legislature with “no strings attached.”

“The Coast economy is intrinsically linked to the viability of the Coast’s marine resources,” Wiggins said. “Tidelands funds statutorily are required to be used to manage and improve coastal resources like water quality, shrimp and oyster habitats, conservation efforts and the like. It only makes sense that a large majority of the funds be used to address the coastal resources that were so heavily impacted by the BP oil spill.

“The filing of this bill is the first big step in the legislative process to making this a reality. It lays out a clear cut path for the Legislature to follow in deciding this issue that I hope will expedite debate and a final approval by both houses.”

Paul Hampton: 228-896-2330, @JPaulHampton