Less than an hour after the BP bill passed the House, Gov. Phil Bryant signed the $200 million a year infrastructure bill and celebrated the end of what he called a historic special session.
“It’s a great day for Mississippi,” he said after the Legislature over five days passed a lottery bill, the BP bill, which when all is said and done will send just over 70 percent of the economic damages settlement to the lower six counties, and the infrastructure bill that will spend millions primarily on the state’s neglected roads and bridges. “Any one of those pieces of legislation would have been monumental.”
Behind Bryant stood Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker Philip Gunn and with them stood a couple dozen lawmakers — Republican and Democrat, male and female, black and white.
Bryant said the three bills were passed in a remarkable display of bipartisanship despite hours of sometimes contentious debate.
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Wednesday, for example, House Ways and Means Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, and Appropriations Chairman John Read, R-Gautier, fought off amendment after amendment, any of them potentially fatal to the plan to spend 75 percent of future BP payments on the Coast, and spend $102 million on an array of road and bridge projects across the state.
One, by Rep. Tracy Arnold, R-Booneville, would have divided the BP money among the state’s 82 counties. It narrowly lost.
But, after more than two hours of debate, the House voted 99-10 in favor of the bill.
“The final vote shows the vast majority of the state knows the damage occurred on the Coast,” said Rep Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, one of the negotiators on the bill. “Now, this gives us an opportunity to go out and entice investment to create jobs and send more money to the general fund. It’s a win-win across the state.”
Starting next July, $30 million a year will go into a fund that can be spent only on projects in the southern six counties. The Coast also got its share of projects in the bill’s earmarks.
“Bipartisan members put aside their differences and voted to do this,” said Reeves. “In the Mississippi Senate, a majority of Republicans voted for all these bills and a majority of Democrats voted for all three bills.”
In the House, getting to the celebration wasn’t so easy. It killed the lottery bill, for instance, only to revive it the next morning.
“Mr. Speaker, bless your heart,” Bryant said of the House’s raucous BP debate. “He has the patience of Job.”
Gunn said there were no losers in that debate.
“The winners today are the citizens of Mississippi,” he said. “Our citizens are going to immediately see the benefits of the legislation we passed.”
That’s true of the special projects in the BP bill. That money is waiting in the treasury.
The rest of the spending will wait until Bryant, Gunn and Reeve appoint an advisory board to vet and recommend projects to the Mississippi Development Authority, which will administer the fund.
Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, who wrote a BP bill that twice passed the Senate but couldn’t get out of the House, said the Coast delegation had a lot of help this year.
“I applaud my legislative colleagues from other parts of the state for standing behind the Gulf Coast in our time of need,” he said in an email after the House vote. “I would also like to thank citizens for keeping this at the forefront and want to salute the members of the business community who took the time to passionately tell the Gulf Coast’s story — the Gulf Coast Business Council, the Coast Chamber, Hancock Chamber, Jackson County Chamber and Economic Development Foundation and others — along with the Coast Senate and House members, and area mayors, council members, and members of board of supervisors who lobbied tirelessly to help pass this bill.”