Lawmakers must make decisions on oil money

Published 9:38 pm Monday, January 22, 2018

Nearly eight years after an explosion unleashed millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi’s elective representatives still must decide how to spend part of the compensation for the spill.

Contrasting approaches to that $750 million from oil company BP PLC for lost tax revenue are on display in the state Senate and House.

The Senate, led by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, has a simple program. Move all the money into a special account and let the Legislature decide how to spend it later.

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“Setting aside funds for the Mississippi Gulf Coast means the settlement will benefit the region most impacted by the 2010 disaster,” Reeves tweeted last week after the Senate approved Senate Bill 2176 by a vote of 48-3, sending it to the House for more debate. “I’m convinced this is the right thing to do for all of Mississippi.”

The situation in the House is more complicated.

The leading contender for support is House Bill 1512 , which is co-sponsored by every House member from the three coastal counties except Republican Casey Eure of Saucier. It calls for sending most of the money to a Gulf Coast Restoration Fund that would be overseen by nine members appointed by officials or economic development groups in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties.

That board would be charged with making grants or loans to “projects that have the potential to generate increased economic activity in the counties involved.” That could be worker training, tourism projects, building industrial parks, building other infrastructure, aiding “high growth industries, or assisting local universities, colleges and military bases, among other possibilities.

The idea behind the House bill is to cut the Legislature out of the process, as much as possible. Rep. Charles Busby, a Pascagoula Republican, acknowledges lawmakers could still grab the money back, but says a separate body helps decrease the pressures of the yearly budget process.

“Then you have that fight every year,” Busby said if the money remains subject to legislative appropriation. “It could be pulled to plug this hole and that hole, whatever the hole may be.”

There is an object lesson in the pressures to spend — Mississippi’s tobacco settlement. In 1999, lawmakers said they planned to save the state’s payments, often more than $100 million a year, in a trust fund. The idea was to invest the money and spend only the earnings to pay for health care expenses. But the budget pressures of the Great Recession led lawmakers to start draining the fund, and by 2016, no savings were left. While it’s still accounted for in a separate fund, the money is now routinely rolled into the current year’s budget.

Acknowledging the pressures from the rest of the state for a cut of the money, a companion bill to Busby’s measure carried by Biloxi Republican Scott DeLano proposes to give 20 percent, or $150 million of the money, to planning and development districts outside the three coastal counties. Busby’s bill calls for that money to be used by those districts for the same economic purposes that the restoration fund would be spent, although he calls the figure in DeLano’s bill an “arbitrary” placeholder.

“I don’t think there’s been any agreed-upon percentage,” Busby said.

That’s similar to what happened in Florida, where 75 percent of the state’s $2 billion settlement went to the eight most heavily impacted counties in the state’s panhandle, while a quarter, or $500 million, was left in the state treasury.

“Obviously we are trying to get other folks on board to pass the bill,” said House Minority Leader David Baria, a Bay St. Louis Democrat.

Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jeffamy.