This month, the Mississippi Legislature wrapped up one of the most acrimonious regular sessions of the past few years. The fighting, arguing and ugliness were open and constant, and the state is a little more broke at the end of the session than when it started. The majority proudly passed and enacted tax cuts even while state revenues trended down. The Governor and leaders in the House and Senate are unapologetic about the results which promise added financial strain for state agencies, health care, and public schools and universities during the next fiscal year.
This year’s regular session was probably also a dress rehearsal for the special session that Governor Bryant is likely to call during the summer, when $150 million - the first installment of the BP economic damage settlement - is paid to the state of Mississippi.
This economic damage money is just one of many different categories of the BP restoration money. It has a specific purpose - to make up for tax revenues that would otherwise have been collected if the state’s economy had not been disrupted by the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. The recent acceptance of the final settlement by a federal judge sets the economic damage award for each of the five Gulf States.
When Mississippi’s first $150 million hits the treasury this July, it will arrive burning a hole in the Legislature’s pocket. Some early skirmishes happened over the fate of BP damage money during the now complete regular session, but they produced no legislation. Governor Bryant’s message about the money has been positive but modest – at least he’s said that some of the BP economic damage money should go to the Mississippi Coastal counties. However, the Legislature, not the Governor, has the power of the purse and controls the state treasury.
It’s predicted that Legislators from upland parts of the state will lay claim to the BP money without regard to what happened in the Coastal Counties during the BP oil spill disaster. After this recent session, there are budget holes to fill in every imaginable category, and the economic damage claim money will no doubt be used to patch them. The BP settlement was finalized during a weak budget year for the state – that’s bad luck for the coastal counties, but Mississippi’s leadership has known for months that the BP settlement money was on the way and likely has anticipated using it to balance this session’s politically scripted tax cutting. After this first year’s installment of $150 million, annual economic damage payments will be $40 million until 2033.
So far, the decision makers haven’t demonstrated an obligation or a vision to spend this source of money on projects that address the Mississippi Coast’s environmental problems – like water pollution. In the first four months of 2016, there have been more than twenty public health advisories issued by MDEQ for high sewage bacteria counts along U.S. Highway 90 beaches. Protecting tourism by improving water quality is a reasonable vision.
The Coast Legislative delegation, making a united appeal for a fair share of the BP economic damage funds, will have to engage in fierce, exhausting battles this summer with their house and senate colleagues over how and where the settlement money is spent. They will need all the help they can muster in order to direct a significant amount of this money to the counties most affected by the BP 2010 oil spill disaster.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's water program director and lives and works in Madison, Mississippi.