A local state representative is raising concerns about a bill that would channel payments from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement to a fund for projects on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Senate Bill 2634 passed unanimously through the Senate, without debate, in early February. The bill would create the Gulf Coast Restoration Reserve Fund to house $750 million in economic damages from BP as a result of the oil spill. The 2010 spill happened after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
The state is set to receive the $750 million in installments from BP through 2033. It has already received $150 million. The money is half of the $1.5 billion the state is set to receive under a 2015 agreement. The other money will be used for environmental restoration and other projects along the coast.
District 37 Rep. Gary Chism (R-Columbus) said he doesn’t think the coast should get all of the $750 million, which was awarded due to a loss of state sales tax money as a result of the spill. Chism also noted the bill drew support from Democrat Attorney General Jim Hood and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, both of whom are seen as potential gubernatorial candidates in 2019.
“I can’t believe that senators from northeast Mississippi are willing to give up the state money to three coastal counties (Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties),” Chism said.
SB 2634 has been referred to the House Appropriations Committee, which District 39 Rep. Jeff Smith (R-Columbus) chairs. The Dispatch could not reach Smith for comment by press time.
Chism: ‘That bill will be dead’
Chism believes, though, the bill will face difficulty in the House, noting that last year, a House coastal delegation failed to pass a measure funneling all of the money to the coast by a 101-20 margin.
He noted that Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn, a Republican from Clinton, has indicated the House will not move forward with bills without a consensus among Republicans. That consensus on what to do with the BP money does not exist, Chism said, so the bill is unlikely to progress.
“That bill will be dead,” he said. “We will not move forward with that bill. All the efforts of the Senate will be for naught.”
District 17 Sen. Chuck Younger (R-Columbus) said he supports allocating the money for the Gulf Coast, because the Gulf Coast bore the brunt of the oil spill’s effects. He said it’s still not clear what long-term effects the oil will have on the coast.
“Yeah, we voted for the coast to get all the BP money,” Younger said. “If we have a tornado disaster up in Lowndes County, would we want to share that recovery money with the Gulf Coast? (In that case, it wouldn’t have destroyed) the Gulf Coast, it (would have) destroyed our community.”
Chism said the coast is already receiving money to help with environmental recovery. He said he would rather see the lost sales tax money divided into five $150 million portions, with a portion going to each of the state’s four U.S. congregational districts. The three coastal counties could receive the remaining $150 as a bonus, he proposes, because of the spill’s impact. The state would still decide what to do with the money–Chism said it might be allocated to the Mississippi Department of Transportation to use on road and bridge repair projects.
District 38 Rep. Tyrone Ellis (D-Starkville) said economic damage from the oil spill extends beyond the state.
“I can simply say that yes, generally speaking from a practical standpoint, other counties suffered as a result of the BP explosion,” Ellis said. “Had that not been, you would not have had the courts and trustees allowing other counties and participants to claim damages. Apparently, someone other than ourselves believes the other counties suffered.”
Still, Ellis said he thinks it better to wait and see what happens when SB 2634 reaches the House floor, if it does.
Younger said he doesn’t believe filing claims for BP damages means northern counties deserve the money more than the coast.
“I know people that didn’t have anything to do with it that got money out of it through these attorneys that told them to claim because they live in Mississippi,” Younger said. “I had some attorneys that said I could have gotten money, and my numbers showed up to where I could have gotten something from BP, but I didn’t do it because I knew it wasn’t right.”
District 15 Sen. Gary Jackson (R-French Camp) could not be reached for comment.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.