No one, perhaps not even Gov. Phil Bryant, knows whether the BP economic damages settlement will be part of the June 5 special session agenda.
But Coast lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, agree that the $100 million remaining from the first installment is at risk as long as it stays where it is — in the state’s contingency fund. And for one, State Sen. Deborah Dawkins, D-Pass Christian, that’s a rosy assessment of the situation.
“Have you and I not had this conversation before?” she asked. “About how we’re not getting all that money? I hate to be so cynical but after 18 years I kind of know how this stuff works. And to think that everything is going to go our way for the Coast is just ignoring history.”
The health care trust fund, which was supposed to protect a multibillion-dollar tobacco settlement from the whims of lawmakers, is part of that history. That settlement reached in 1997 was supposed to continue to pay Mississippi millions each year — a total of $4 billion the first 25 years — as long as the tobacco companies stayed in business. The money was to go into a trust fund, then invested with the interest used to cover the state’s cost of caring for ill smokers.
Sound familiar? One plan on the Coast for the BP money is to put it in a special trust fund and use it for economic recovery projects that would bring a return on investment and keep money in the trust for years and years.
And the tobacco trust? It ran dry last year, according to the Associated Press. The fund was repeatedly raided during lean budget years until there was nothing left. The state received $116 million in 2016, the AP reported, and it went straight into the general fund.
Money in limbo
The fear among Coast lawmakers is the money might not make it to a trust fund before it is diverted to other parts of the state.
Sen. Brice Wiggins had a bill that would have created a Gulf Coast Restoration Reserve Fund to collect BP settlement payments “for the purpose of funding projects primarily benefiting the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
The Senate passed it unanimously. Then it went to the House, where it died.
Wiggins immediately called for Gov. Phil Bryant to add it to a special session. He followed up with a letter making the same request. As of Friday, he said, “I have not heard anything that might happen.”
He said to this day he doesn’t understand why the House didn’t back the bill.
“My bill was a version of the bill requested by the governor,” he said. “I don’t know why (the House) didn’t support it. You’d have to ask someone in the House. What I know is we had 52 members from all over the state support a bill to put the money on the Coast.”
Now, Wiggins said, it technically is up for grabs.
“That’s exactly the fear,” he said, “that it will go off into other corners of the budget. I had some people come up to me after it died and say, ‘Now I guess we get some of that money.’”
Still, he’s confident that Bryant and Lt. Gov Tate Reeves, both of whom have said that almost all the money should be spent on Coast projects, won’t let that happen. He said if the governor added the BP issue to his special session, he could limit that discussion to spending the money on the Coast.
Why DeLano opposed
Rep. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, one of the 16 House members from the Coast who signed a letter saying they opposed the Senate bill because “it doesn’t say how the money will be spent, or for what purposes the money will be used,” said he doesn’t believe the time is right to take up the issue again.
“There have not been any discussion since the session amongst the Coast delegation about how we move forward with initializing legislation that we can all support,” he said. “I’m not trying to say anything about the bill that the Senate passed. It just didn’t work for us. We weren’t getting anything out of it. We have to come up with a better plan.”
He said the Senate bill wouldn’t have prevented the Legislature from raiding the BP settlement money.
And, he said, the tobacco settlement is a fair warning to the Coast of what can happen to money that’s merely left in a trust fund for safe keeping.
“You don’t have to go far back in history to see money that’s left at the state in a trust fund gets squandered or could get reprogrammed,” he said. “That’s why it’s imperative, imperative that we move that money out of state coffers.”
In the dark
David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, who also signed the letter, said he was “completely in the dark when it comes to BP money.”
He said as far as he knows there have been no meetings among the Coast delegation about the settlement since the Senate bill died.
He said that bill died because it “had very little substance.”
“The House wanted to go ahead and have a substantive debate over what we did with the BP money,” he said, “and the Senate was saying, we don’t want to hear that, we just want you to pass this bill.”
He said the bill should lay out how much money is coming to the Coast and how the Coast would spend it.
“At least in terms of what kinds of projects would qualify,” he said. “And the Senate bill didn’t do anything but set up an account. I agree it would be helpful to move the money to another account to safeguard it. But it would only require an act of the Legislature to take money from that account and spend it on something else.”
Dawkins said the 2018 election could help the Coast hang on to the money.
“If I was Tate Reeves and I was running for governor,” she said. “I would want the people from the Coast to be on my side. We may not be the deciding factor but we are a factor.”
What will be on the session agenda is the budget for the Department of Transportation and the Attorney General’s Office.
And, Dawkins said, possibly a lottery.
MDOT and its backers have been pushing for an increase in the gas tax, or possibly an internet tax, to pay for new roads and highway maintenance.
But a lottery wouldn’t put much of a dent in the more than $300 million annually that some say is needed for MDOT.
“It wouldn’t even fix one road,” said Dawkins.