Other Opinions

The time is now to put BP money to work on the Coast

Oil the size of a football sits on the beach in Waveland after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Oil washed ashore in Harrison and Hancock counties during the 2010 disaster, causing some beaches to be closed.
Oil the size of a football sits on the beach in Waveland after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Oil washed ashore in Harrison and Hancock counties during the 2010 disaster, causing some beaches to be closed. ttisbell@sunherald.com

Time is running out for the Mississippi Gulf Coast to get its fair share of the BP money. Right now, the Mississippi Legislature is deciding how it will spend a $750 million economic damage settlement from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. With each day that passes, lawmakers get closer to making final decisions about how — and where — those economic damage settlement dollars will be spent.

We echo the sentiments of Coast legislators, Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves: The money belongs on the Coast. The people and businesses of the Mississippi Gulf Coast bore the brunt of the economic damage caused by the 2010 disaster. Repairing that damage should be Mississippi’s first priority.

Policom, a group that tracks the economic health of Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the United States, just released its 2018 Economic Strength Rankings. According to Policom, the Gulfport-Biloxi-Pascagoula Metropolitan Statistical Area has fallen to No. 360 out of the 383 MSAs in the U.S. By comparison, the Coast MSA was ranked No. 232 of 383 just after the oil spill. To put that into perspective, the Coast is now ranked just one spot ahead of No. 361 Flint, Michigan, a region making national headlines because of its severely depressed economy and failing civil infrastructure.

These rankings, while dismal, should serve as a call to action.

The Coast is open for business. With its coastal charm, strong workforce and a growing emphasis on the maritime “Blue Economy” in America, the Coast is well-positioned to regain its economic momentum.

The best way to accomplish this, we believe, is for the Legislature to invest the money in projects that create jobs. We’ve used the word “transformational” to describe the type of investments we’d like to see. Simply put, “transformational” means that we will see tangible results — people on the Coast working, earning, buying, spending and producing. We don’t want to see additional studies and academic papers that will join countless others on a shelf somewhere — we want to see workers with lunchboxes and laptops.

The settlement money shouldn’t pay for more government programs and it certainly shouldn’t be spread out so that every city or county in the state gets a tiny slice of the pie. The money should be used to create jobs for people who will buy houses and cars, spend money in local businesses and restore the tax base on the Coast. And those taxes will ultimately benefit every city and county in Mississippi.

To make sure this happens, we are calling on lawmakers to adopt four key virtues before another nickel of the BP money is spent.

▪  First, any group created by the Legislature to decide which projects are funded should be composed of competent, Coast-based decision makers. Gov. Bryant got it right when he created the Go Coast 2020 Commission, filled with Coast business leaders, to advise him on how monies received by Mississippi under the RESTORE Act should be spent. The Mississippi Legislature should follow Gov. Bryant’s lead in ensuring that decisions made about the Coast’s economic future are made by those who live, work and are directly invested in the well-being of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

▪  Second, the money should be spent transparently. The Legislature has already spent more than $50 million on a variety of projects, without much fanfare or public attention. The process for spending these funds should be free of secrets, patronage or agendas. The best way to ensure that is to shine a light on every decision that is made and manage the money publicly, in accordance with all laws and regulations designed to protect the taxpayers.

▪  Third, the Legislature should create clear accountability so that those who receive the funds will be held responsible to deliver the results they promise.

▪  Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the money should result in measurable economic impact. The term “transformational” applies here. The outcomes should be easy for Coast residents to see and understand — cranes going up, busy construction sites, businesses opening, people being hired and earning incomes, communities thriving.

This is Mississippi’s chance to repair the economic engine that was actually damaged, just as they would do for any other region in Mississippi that was hit by a major disaster.

Since the settlement with BP was announced in 2015, the Legislature has been debating what to do with the funds.

The time for debate is over. It’s time for action.

The Coast’s economy was damaged. The money was intended to repair that damage. Put the money on the Coast where it belongs and where it can do the most good for Mississippi.

Gulf Coast Business Council: Ashley Edwards, chief executive officer; John Hairston, chairman; Anthony Wilson, vice chairman; Ron Peresich, past chairman; Chuck Benvenutti, treasurer; and Chevis Swetman, Duncan McKenzie, Jerry St. Pe, Roy Anderson III and Gary Marchand, all executive board members.