State Politics

Can we have better schools, better roads and BP money? The next 90 days will tell.

Where do the millions of BP dollars go?

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.
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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.

By the end of the 2018 legislative session, Mississippi could have a public school funding formula that works, a plan to care for people who can’t afford health insurance or doctor visits, a bill that would bring most of the BP economic damages settlement to the Coast, a plan for roads and bridges, a lottery and a new flag.

Or none of those.

Count Sen. Deborah Dawkins among the skeptics. Dawkins, the longest-serving Democrat on the Coast, doubts any of the leaders, most of whom have aspirations for higher office, will do anything that could be held against them in upcoming elections.

“That makes them want to do nothing,” she said. “And just kind of coast.”

But it’s also pretty clear she’s had it with the partisanship in Jackson that has had the Democrats shut out of most discussions.

“They should have printed over all the doors, ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,’” she said, channeling her inner Dante Alighieri. “But we have to try.”

School funding

Others say this could be the year the Legislature delivers on the long-promised revision of the state’s public school funding formula.

Lawmakers have in hand a year-old report state officials commissioned on the school funding formula. It didn’t get those “Recommendations for Improving School Funding in Mississippi” until the 2017 session had begun and then could not reach an agreement on which, if any, of those recommendations to adopt.

That agreement is still, according to Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ office, a work in progress.

“Over the past seven years, the conversation on education has changed to one of outcomes — what results are we seeing — rather than only inputs,” said Laura Hipp, spokeswoman for the lieutenant governor. “Mississippi’s seeing positive movement with that change as the graduation rate has increased and students’ performance is improving compared to their peers in other states. Raising the education attainment level of all Mississippians is always at the top of Lt. Gov. Reeves’ concerns.”

Republican lawmakers for years have complained that too much money is going to the schools’ administrators.

“A new funding formula that prioritizes instruction over administration combined with support for teacher training and programs that work can help reach the goal of giving every child a chance at success,” Hipp said. “This session, Senate and House members, with input from local district administrators, will work through the measures in a formula that will improve how Mississippi educates children, including an emphasis on career-tech, Advanced Placement and special needs programs.”

Rep. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, said he believes an education overhaul could make it to the House floor this year. The challenge for the Coast, he said, is making sure the improvements for the poorest schools don’t come at the expense of Coast schools. Many of them are funded at the maximum level by local taxpayers.

“I am concerned about the impact it could have for the Coast schools,” he said. “We are a little different in how our public schools are run and how much we commit in local dollars. I don’t want us to be penalized for providing that additional local support that we should encourage throughout the state.”

Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis and the minority leader, said Democrats have no idea what the majority Republicans might propose for education.

“They’re keeping that a secret from most everybody, I think,” he said. “I understand they’re going to come forward with something, but they are trying to juggle within the caucus to see how they can satisfy Republicans whose districts will be impacted. I assume once they have the votes in their own caucus, then they’ll start talking to us.”

BP money

Republicans and Democrats on the Coast have managed to work together on the issue that’s bedeviled them for a couple of years: How to snare the bulk of the $750 million BP economic damages settlement.

“I think the Gulf Coast delegation will be more or less united behind a single bill that will dedicate some large percentage of the BP economic damages settlement to the three Coast counties,” Baria said. “And it will actually prescribe how you go about spending that money. First and foremost, we want to remove a percentage, 80 percent let’s say, and just take it away from legislative appropriations and give it to another entity to determine how that money is spent through the Gulf Coast counties.”

They’ll need Republican and Democratic votes because there are lawmakers from other parts of the state who have their eyes on a sizable share of the money as well. Rep. Gary Chisolm, R-Columbus, for example.

“Many Representatives believe that the $750 million is the state’s money and the Coast and Congressional District 4 should get 40 percent and the other three districts, 20 percent each,” he said.

That difference of opinion helped scuttle a bill that flew through the Senate last year only to crash in the House.

“Some of them believe it’s a free pot of money when actually it’s money for economic damages that occurred down in the coastal communities and that’s where the money should be spent,” DeLano said. He said several bills likely will be filed by the Coast delegation to attempt to achieve that end.

“I think a majority of the legislators from all across the state know the damages occurred on the Coast and that’s where most of this money should be spent,” he said.

Researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Lab explain in 2015, five years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, why it will take them up to 20 years to fully understand the impact of the spill on the Gulf of Mexico.

Dawkins has her doubts.

“They may say, ‘Oh yes, we’ll help you any way we can,’” she said. “Uh. Uh. Yeah. Until it impacts them.”

The Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce has been trying to get as many people as possible to go to the Coast Legislative Reception on Jan. 10 and stay for the Gulf Coast Capitol Day the next day. The main goal is to secure the BP money.

And, the Lieutenant Governor’s Office said he still backs the Coast.

“As Lt. Gov. Reeves has said previously, the BP disaster happened on the Gulf Coast and that is why the Coast should receive the vast majority of settlement funds,” Hipp said. “The Senate passed Sen. Wiggins’ legislation in 2017 that set that money in a special account, and unfortunately, that measure did not make it through the House. Lt. Gov. Reeves believes the funds should be spent on projects that add to the Coast economy because that is good for the entire state.”

BP money aside, Baria said, lawmakers face huge issues in health care — “That would take an hour to go through all of them” — and the debate over how to pay to maintain and repair roads and bridges.

Dawkins said the Legislature also likely will be dealing with an unruly budget. “I’m shocked, shocked that we haven’t seen huge revenue increases because they cut all these taxes,” she said sarcastically.

DeLano said lawmakers also will probably take up a lottery, something he supports as long as it’s played on paper, like the Powerball, and not on electronic machines that look like cousins to video poker.

The 90-day session begins Tuesday.

Paul Hampton: 228-284-7296, @JPaulHampton

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