Another legislative session ended Wednesday with about $700 million in BP economic damages money unprotected from the grasp of upstate lawmakers.
About $100 million that remains from the first $150 million check the state received in the settlement will stay in the budget contingency fund, a fund that could be spent by the Legislature anywhere in the state. And unless the Legislature acts, the next $40 million check the state will receive next year, and all the $40 million checks each year after that, will go into the same fund.
While the Coast’s effort to bring the money here is alive and well, leaving it in a fund subject to the vagaries of this or a future Legislature is a legitimate concern, said Rep. Hank Zuber, R-Ocean Springs.
Legislative leaders say the fund won’t be raided. Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn all have said they believe most if not all the money should be spent on the Coast.
Still, legislative leaders come and go, as do legislators. So the Coast delegation and business leaders want it out of their reach. Both sides in the current debate agree the Coast’s share of the money should be deposited in a fund that could be spent only on the Coast.
But they can’t agree on who will control that spending.
Tuesday, the day after House and Senate negotiators missed a deadline to arrive at a compromise version of a bill on how and where to spend the money, a poll of members of the Gulf Coast Business Council found overwhelming opposition to the latest version of that bill, which its leaders said would amount to a 65 percent-35 percent split between the Coast and the rest of the state.
That surprised Gunn who said he received no objection to the split when he presented it to representatives of the council on Monday afternoon.
“They didn’t bat an eye,” he said. “They didn’t roll their eyes. They didn’t object. They didn’t moan.”
The plan would have taken $77 million of the $100 million and spent it on a variety of road, bridge and other projects, about $7.5 million worth of them on the Coast. The rest of the money would be split 75/25.
The sticking point
Gunn said the business community, in another poll question, overwhelmingly supported a 75/25 split if the spending was controlled by a local board of trustees.
“It appears the sticking point appears to be control,” Gunn said. “Our proposal involved the Legislature appropriating the funds, which I think is the role of the Legislature. But it appears there are some who want to have the Legislature give them the dollars and let them appropriate the funds. We see that as bad public policy, I don’t care where you live.”
And a Coast lawmaker said directing a fraction of the money to other areas of the state is the only way to secure votes to pass a BP bill in the House.
“At the end of the day, you have to have a plan that has the support of the Legislature,’ said Manly Barton, R-Moss Point. “There are compromises here that were made. I think we all would love to see all the money go to the Coast. But I don’t think we can get that and pass a comprehensive BP bill.”
The Coast can’t win even a share of the BP money without the support of lawmakers throughout the state because the Coast delegation is badly outnumbered.
The other state
And there are those in the northern part of the state who think even a 75/25 split would give too much money to the Coast. Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, once said it would be fairer to give 40 percent of the money to the 4th Congressional District, which includes the Coast, and 20 percent to each of the three other districts. He has since revised that upward to a 50-50 split.
He said he arrived at that figure by examining all the claims paid to individuals, cities and counties after the spill.
“If you took all the claims of the three Coast counties it amounts to about 50 percent of the claims,” he said. “The rest of it is north of those three Coast counties.”
And, he said, the state suffered because it didn’t not receive as much sales tax after the spill as it had before.
“That one is a little more hard to identify,” he said. “But claims paid to the three Coast counties and to the rest of the state are clear. Definitive.”
That is the sort of argument the Gunn and the Coast House delegation has faced.
“I think people on the Coast would be blown away by what we hear on a daily basis,” said Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi.
Senate has the votes
But the Senate leadership isn’t getting that much pushback from its members. Four times senators approved bills that would send all the money to the Coast. Twice the vote was unanimous.
“The position of the Senate was, has been and is that we should spend 100 percent of the money on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” said Reeves. “That’s the right thing to do. The vast majority of the damage from the oil spill occurred in South Mississippi, so the vast majority of the money should be spent in South Mississippi.”
Reeves said he was willing to go along with an 80/20 split, but as negotiations continued it became apparent the House was actually talking about a 75/25 split and spending the $100 million on hand on what Reeves considered pet projects.
“The offer that was actually made was closer to 65/35,” he said. The “pet” projects, he said, already had been rejected Friday during negotiations on the Bridge Act. “That simply was an acceptable option.”
Although in the poll the business community opposed that plan, it would back that split if the Coast got local control over its share of the money with oversight of the Mississippi Development Authority, said Business Council Chairman John Hairston on Wednesday. That set-up is also favored by Reeves but opposed by Gunn and the House.
That difference would have to be resolved before Bryant would call an executive session.
“You don’t want a group of special interests on the Coast controlling the money,” said Gunn. “You know how that’s going to go.”
DeLano said House and Senate negotiators were close to an agreement to let lawmakers have final say on projects vetted and recommended by the Coast board but “just ran out of time” before an 8 p.m. Monday deadline to resolve their differences.
“This is not that dissimilar to what we do with tidelands (money paid for leases on land own by the state at the shore and underwater),” said DeLano. “Tidelands had to do the same thing. We have a process through appropriation where we are able to fund those tidelands projects. We think the BP projects should be done similarly.”
“Our number one goal was to get a bill passed this year,” he said. “We didn’t want this to keep going and losing money.”
Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, said the House’s original position was a 50/50 split, so he believes they have made a lot of progress.
“We look forward to further discussions with the other end of the hall even after we adjourn this session to pull something together at the very near future,” he said.
Reeves is optimistic, too.
“With the holdup in the road and bridge package that failed when the House chose not to negotiate with 36 hours left before the deadline, with this (BP) and the fact they have offered spending $100 million of money that I believe the Coast should receive on roads and bridges, perhaps they want to negotiate on roads and bridges and BP,” he said. “And that’s something I’m certainly willing to consider and willing to talk to leaders in the House to talk to at some time. I think it probably behooves all of us to take a week or two off and perhaps everybody calm their senses and in some cases come to their senses, we can probably have much more productive conversations.”