State Politics

The Coast won't 'sit down and shut up' about BP money, business council says

Oil the size of a football sits on the beach in Waveland in 2010. Oil continued to wash ashore in Harrison and Hancock counties, causing some beaches to be closed.
Oil the size of a football sits on the beach in Waveland in 2010. Oil continued to wash ashore in Harrison and Hancock counties, causing some beaches to be closed. Sun Herald File

The Gulf Coast Business Council won't sit down and shut up — when it comes to BP economic damages.

Council Board Chairman John Hairston, at a Business Council meeting on Tuesday, said he expects the BP money to be part of a special session this summer on infrastructure, which could also include a lottery and education funding.

A deal to bring to the Coast most of the $700 million in economic damages to be paid by the oil giant over the next 15 years fell apart in the 11th hour of the legislative session that ended last month.

"We the business community expect results," he said. "For two years, we talked about this subject of BP and get literally zero action except $53 million of projects that as of today still have no requirement for transparent monitoring to ensure that we are indeed getting economic growth and ... jobs."

USM has teamed up with aquaculture company Aqua Green LLC to start a facility to find a better way to raise oysters for commercial production. When USM gets BP Restore Act money, they will buy the facility in Parkinson and continue doing research

Coast lawmakers and the council agree that most of the money should be spent on the Coast, because it suffered most of the economic damages. But they disagree on how to do that.

"The idea that we would sit down and shut up and let the process go on for another year, to me, is unconscionable," said Hairston. "I believe our going forward posture should be to continue to insist on a legislative result that calls for a reasonable amount of money to be spent on a pro-rata basis on the Coast."

The deal he said is being discussed in Jackson now would bring 75 percent of the money to the Coast.

"Close enough to 75 to call it a deal," he said, a deal that he said wouldn't have happened without the pressure from the Coast business community. "At least $75 million of additional money is headed to the Coast because of this organization."

The lobbying debate

Rep. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, one of the chief negotiators on BP, earlier had said that sometimes that lobbying wasn't helpful.

"Does anyone in this room think that the Coast delegation does not want as much of this money to come to the Coast as possible?" DeLano asked. "It was an absolute failure for the Coast Chamber and the Gulf Coast Business Council to come out and speak against the efforts of the speaker of the House and the House when things didn't appear to be going in the direction they were wanting to go. It was a failure, because those comments were replayed all over the state.

"Those comments came back to me and were replayed on iPads on the House floor and in the Senate chamber, saying, 'You don't even have your own people supporting your efforts. They don't know what you have to go through to get a bill passed.'"

He said when lawmakers asked the business community to tone down the rhetoric, it meant "Help us; don't throw rocks at us when we're trying to get this accomplished."

He said the fight should be against north Mississippi lawmakers who are trying to take as much of the BP money as they can. Any deal would require votes from around the state, because the Coast delegation is outnumbered in both the House and Senate.

Time runs short

The three lawmakers at the Business Council meeting — Sens. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, and Joel Carter, R-Gulfport, and DeLano — agreed that if a BP deal isn't reached soon and adopted at a special session, the issue was likely dead for the next legislative session because 2019 is a statewide election year.

"If you can't get anything done in a special session, I don't see getting anything done until 2020," said Carter, referring to a school funding overhaul, a bill that also died at the last moment.

The major sticking point on BP is over who will make the final decision on spending. The Business Council wants that power to rest with a Coast-centric board that is independent of the Legislature. House Speaker Phil Gunn wants the Legislature to make the final appropriation.

Several bills, including a BP deal that would have put some of the money toward roads throughout the state, died because the House and Senate could not reach a compromise.

"The dynamic of the lieutenant governor (Tate Reeves) and how he's operated over the past seven years now is basically 'it's my way or the highway,'" Watson said. "When you have such a strong grip, there is resentment that has built up. Eventually, the resentment builds up to the point of 'OK, you did that, we're going to do this' and it turns into a contest of two chambers where, again, that resentment boils over and we just can't get anything done.

"It's politics. It's ugly. It's a contact sport."