Senate approves bill dividing $700M in oil spill damages

Published 1:06 pm Wednesday, August 29, 2018

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi senators late Tuesday approved a bill to divide up $700 million in oil spill damages, setting aside more than $100 million overall for special projects.

“I think it’s safe to say the majority of benefits are to the coast,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Joey Fillingane, a Sumrall Republican.

The subject became part of the special session when Gov. Phil Bryant widened the agenda to include it after lawmakers passed bills to send transportation aid to cities and counties and create a state lottery to add funding to the state Transportation Department for the next 10 years.

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BP PLC is paying a total of $750 million to Mississippi through 2033 to make up for lost tax revenue from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Lawmakers have already spent $52.4 million of the money, but nearly $100 million is sitting in the bank and 15 yearly payments of $40 million a year will begin in 2019.

Overall, Mississippi is likely to get more than $2.4 billion from all sources to pay for environmental and economic damages from the spill.

The Legislature has been stymied in previous attempts to divide the damage money, with one proposal collapsing at the end of the regular session earlier this year when House and Senate negotiators couldn’t agree.

Senate Bill 2002 would give at least 72 percent of money to Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, and parts of George, Stone and Pearl River counties and the rest to the remaining 76 counties.

The plan would take $53 million of the $100 million in BP money in the bank, and combine it with $50 million borrowed earlier and set aside to spend on special projects that some deride as pork. It would also set aside $9 million in BP money for railroad and railroad crossing improvements statewide.

Some of those special projects are on the Gulf Coast but most are spread elsewhere across the state. Senators representing Jackson complained the bill includes only two projects worth a little more than $1 million total. The largest projects include new roads in Rankin and Madison counties, at $8 million each. Many projects are in the districts of influential committee chairmen.

Some of the special project money may have been promised to lawmakers in exchange for support on special session issues.

The Senate voted 42-8 in favor of the bill after only brief debate that included one senator reading the entire list of 128 earmarked projects. The measure moves to the House for more debate, likely on Wednesday.

Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez posted on social media late Tuesday evening that he was successful in getting several projects included in the Senate Bill for his Southwest Mississippi District 37.

“I was successful in getting $280, 000 for The Rodney Presbyterian Church Foundation for repairs and renovations and $150,000 for the town of Summit for improvements to the stand pipe in their water tower,” Dearing wrote. “Also included in the bill is $900,000 for the City of Natchez for matching funds for their watershed project and $3,000,000 for Pike County for the Gateway Industrial Park.

“I was unsuccessful in getting $2,000,000 for repairs and renovations to the Margaret Martin School of Performing Arts. I will just have to keep working on this one.”

Some senators objected to the spending measures.

“These projects are being decided based on backroom deals, and all so this bill will pass,” said Sen. David Blount, a Jackson Democrat who opposed the bill.

Of the remainder of the $100 million, about $27 million would go to coast projects, while $9 million would remain in a state savings account for lawmakers to spend later.

However, some House lawmakers oppose the division, arguing the coast has no special claim to the money, since it was supposed to replace lost tax revenue that would have been spent in state budgets.

Republican Rep. Tracy Arnold of Booneville is circulating a proposal to divide the money among counties and cities based on their share of Mississippi’s population. He said his proposal is getting “overwhelming support” and predicted senators would feel pressure from city and county officials to approve it.

“I’m not going to settle for crumbs,” Arnold said, when asked about whether legislative leaders were using special projects to get non-coastal lawmakers to vote for the bill. “My people sent me down here to sit at the table.”

Coast leaders have repeatedly called for some way to make sure the money is used for high-impact projects. Gulf Coast Business Council CEO Ashley Edwards, for example, is critical of the decision to finance the state’s bicentennial celebration out of BP money.

The Mississippi Development Authority would run an application process for the Gulf Coast money, prioritizing projects that would create jobs. Lawmakers would approve grants recommended by MDA each year. MDA could approve loans.

Wiggins said lawmakers had refused to put some other body outside of state government in charge of the coast’s portion of the money.

“I think that ship has sailed,” Wiggins said.

Lawmakers would control the non-coast money directly each year.