State Politics

Fate of BP money could be decided at Mississippi special session this week

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.

Republicans appear to be close to a deal to pay for millions of dollars in road and bridge repairs across the state, but whether they’ll decide what to do with $600 million in BP economic damages in special session of the Legislature that begins Thursday isn’t so clear.

Gov. Phil Bryant said last week in a tweet that BP money would be part of the session, but it wasn’t in the official proclamation Tuesday. Bryant’s office later told the Associated Press that the settlement could be dealt with after a road and bridge bill was finished.

“Using revenue generated by internet sales taxes, sports betting, electric and hybrid vehicle user fees and a state lottery, the Mississippi Infrastructure Modernization Act will provide more than $200 million annually to meet Mississippi’s infrastructure needs,” he said in a tweet accompanying the proclamation, signaling a deal had been reached.

Wednesday afternoon, the Governor’s Office called a press conference with Bryant, Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, just before the start of the session, to talk about the road and bridge bill, another sign the Republicans were in agreement.

Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, was optimistic even before Bryant’s tweet.

“Every one of our state leaders appears to be comfortable that there is even at least a chance we might get all of this done in one day,” he said Wednesday. “That means opinions have converged over the last couple of days and everyone is pretty much on the same page. That leaves me very optimistic.”

The Democratic leadership is skeptical. David Baria, the party’s leader in the House, said the Republicans haven’t been talking to the Democrats. The caucus will have a press conference at 9 a.m. Thursday.

“And they’ve not talked to the supervisors, they’ve not talked to the mayors, city council people,” he said. “Far as I know they haven’t talked to any of the stakeholders, asphalt folks, concrete folks.

“My understanding is there may be a deal but also, there may not be a deal on infrastructure. I know the House position as expressed in House Bill 722 is likely still the House position, but everybody needs to understand that is a partial solution to a much larger problem. What we need is to have an open process with input from all the stakeholders and really get our arms around what is a very large problem that has to be addressed comprehensively. And you really can’t do that in a 48-hour special session.”

If Republicans stick together, though, they could pass a plan without any Democratic votes.

Two years ago, the Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, said Mississippi needed to spend an additional $375 million a year to repair and replace roads and bridges. Earlier this year, Bryant ordered more than 100 bridges closed that state and federal officials considered unsafe.

The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers said 2,098 of the state’s 17,068 bridges were structurally deficient and 28 percent of its 76,777 miles of public roads are in poor condition.

“Delaying these investments only escalates the cost and risks of an aging infrastructure system, an option that the country, Mississippi, and families can no longer afford,” the ACE wrote on its website.

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