JACKSON, Miss. — Some Northeast Mississippi legislators are putting the brakes on plans to give three coastal counties all of the funds from the $750 million settlement with BP for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.
The issue of how the money should be divvied up is expected to be a major topic during the 2017 legislative session. During public hearings last week, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves reiterated his stance that the money should be spent on the Coast.
Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, who played a key role in negotiating the settlement, also supports the Coast receiving the funds.
“After years of litigation and work to identify the economic damage caused by this catastrophe, we reached an agreement that would help to make our Coastal communities whole again,” Hood said earlier. “However, I am deeply concerned that the state’s legislative leaders may use this payment to try to cover up their self-created budget hole.”
But Rep. William Tracy Arnold, R-Booneville, tells the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (http://bit.ly/2d3L7ZZ) not so fast.
“I know some people feel some of the money should come to the central and northern parts of the state,” Arnold said.
The state received the first $150 million settlement in late June. The Legislature committed about $46 million of that for projects on the Gulf Coast — primarily at the University of Southern Mississippi and at Gulf Coast Community College.
Rep. Nick Bain, D-Corinth, said he understands coast legislators’ concerns and agrees the three coast counties should receive the largest share of the funds. But Bain said the money is for economic damages to the state, such as the loss of sales tax revenue caused by the slowdown primarily in tourism on the coast after the oil spill. He said the sales tax revenue was for the entire state and that Gulf Coast municipalities already have been reimbursed for the portion of the sales tax they lost.
“I have heard proposals to divide the money by the three Supreme Court districts with the Southern District getting half and the Central and Northern Districts dividing the other half,” Bain said.
Both Bain and Arnold mentioned that the funds should be used for infrastructure.
“Absolutely, spend it on something that benefits the entire state,” Bain said.
State leaders currently are considering the possibility of increasing taxes to pay for infrastructure.
“It could offset a tax increase,” said Arnold, though some are saying the state needs more money for infrastructure than the roughly $40 million annually the state will receive from the settlement.
Rep. Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona, said, “I think some of the money should be spent all over Mississippi.”
Rep. Donnie Bell, R-Fulton, said, “It is something we should study. I am not prepared to make a decision right now. I think we should look at the needs, the budget and take all of that into account.”
Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Guntown, said he believes “the lion’s share of the money should be spent on the Gulf Coast.” If other areas of the state were impacted by the oil spill, McMahan said they could make their case to the Legislature
But he said, “If the Gulf Coast is helped to be made whole by the money, it helps the entire state.”
The total settlement negotiated with BP for the state is $2.2 billion. The bulk of the funds outside of the $750 million for economic damages is going for environmental restoration projects on the Coast. In addition, the Coastal counties and municipalities have received other funds for various issues related to the oil spill, including the reimbursement of at least a portion of the sales tax revenue the municipalities lost.
Municipalities receive a portion of the 7 percent sale tax on retail sales made within their borders. So when the Coastal economy suffered during the prolonged oil spill, revenue took a nose dive in the Coastal municipalities, as well as for the entire state.
Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, http://djournal.com