Special session ends with infrastructure, lottery, BP bills passed

Less than an hour after the BP bill passed the House, Gov. Phil Bryant signed the $200 million a year infrastructure bill and celebrated the end of what he called a historic special session.

“It’s a great day for Mississippi,” he said after the Legislature over five days passed a lottery bill, the BP bill, which when all is said and done will send just over 70 percent of the economic damages settlement to the lower six counties, and the infrastructure bill that will spend millions primarily on the state’s neglected roads and bridges. “Any one of those pieces of legislation would have been monumental.”

Behind Bryant stood Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker Philip Gunn and with them stood a couple dozen lawmakers — Republican and Democrat, male and female, black and white.

Bryant said the three bills were passed in a remarkable display of bipartisanship despite hours of sometimes contentious debate.

Wednesday, for example, House Ways and Means Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, and Appropriations Chairman John Read, R-Gautier, fought off amendment after amendment, any of them potentially fatal to the plan to spend 75 percent of future BP payments on the Coast, and spend $102 million on an array of road and bridge projects across the state.

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One, by Rep. Tracy Arnold, R-Booneville, would have divided the BP money among the state’s 82 counties. It narrowly lost.

But, after more than two hours of debate, the House voted 99-10 in favor of the bill.

“The final vote shows the vast majority of the state knows the damage occurred on the Coast,” said Rep Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, one of the negotiators on the bill. “Now, this gives us an opportunity to go out and entice investment to create jobs and send more money to the general fund. It’s a win-win across the state.”

Starting next July, $30 million a year will go into a fund that can be spent only on projects in the southern six counties. The Coast also got its share of projects in the bill’s earmarks.

“Bipartisan members put aside their differences and voted to do this,” said Reeves. “In the Mississippi Senate, a majority of Republicans voted for all these bills and a majority of Democrats voted for all three bills.”

In the House, getting to the celebration wasn’t so easy. It killed the lottery bill, for instance, only to revive it the next morning.

“Mr. Speaker, bless your heart,” Bryant said of the House’s raucous BP debate. “He has the patience of Job.”

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Gunn said there were no losers in that debate.

“The winners today are the citizens of Mississippi,” he said. “Our citizens are going to immediately see the benefits of the legislation we passed.”

That’s true of the special projects in the BP bill. That money is waiting in the treasury.

The rest of the spending will wait until Bryant, Gunn and Reeve appoint an advisory board to vet and recommend projects to the Mississippi Development Authority, which will administer the fund.

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, who wrote a BP bill that twice passed the Senate but couldn’t get out of the House, said the Coast delegation had a lot of help this year.

“I applaud my legislative colleagues from other parts of the state for standing behind the Gulf Coast in our time of need,” he said in an email after the House vote. “I would also like to thank citizens for keeping this at the forefront and want to salute the members of the business community who took the time to passionately tell the Gulf Coast’s story — the Gulf Coast Business Council, the Coast Chamber, Hancock Chamber, Jackson County Chamber and Economic Development Foundation and others — along with the Coast Senate and House members, and area mayors, council members, and members of board of supervisors who lobbied tirelessly to help pass this bill.”

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The Mississippi Senate, by a wide margin, passed a bill that leaders said would bring 75 percent of the $750 million paid by BP for economic damages caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster to the Coast.

“We are one step closer to getting the vast majority of the BP Settlement spent on the Gulf Coast, where the vast majority of the damage occurred,” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said in an emailed statement after the 42-8 vote.

Sen. Tommy Gollot’s bill, which goes to the House on Wednesday for its consideration, would create a Gulf Coast Restoration Fund that would receive 75 percent of future payments. That money would be administered by Mississippi Development Authority, acting on advice from an advisory board that would vet specific projects that would be pitched via a website. Three members of the board and its chairman would be appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant and two each by Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn.

The money could be spent only for projects in the six southernmost counties — Harrison, Hancock, Jackson, George, Stone and Pearl River.

But it also has $111 million — $61 million from the BP settlement and $50 million from a revenue bond measure contained in a road and bridges bill approved Monday. That will be spent on specific projects, mostly road and bridge work.

Some of those projects, though, are on the Coast. They are:

  • $2 million for the East Bank Access Road in Pascagoula.
  • $2 million for the North Rail Corridor in Jackson County.
  • $1 million for Long Beach Streets.
  • $800,000 for Harrison County law enforcement training academy.
  • $500,000 for Hancock County to repair a bridge on Kiln-DeLisle Road.
  • $150,000 for Stone County roads.
  • $500,000 for Hall Road in Wiggins.
  • $525,000 for FZ Goss Road in Pearl River County.
  • $400,000 for Pass Christian roads.
  • $500,000 for Ocean Springs water and sewer system.
  • $500,000 for improvements to the Town Green in Gautier.

There were 26 pages of projects in all, a Christmas tree full in the eyes of Sen. David Blount of Jackson, who argued the Coast already had been adequately compensated for oil spill damage.

They also were seen as a way to secure the cooperation from lawmakers representing other parts of the state.

“I think the bill was structured such that it could get the votes to pass in this environment,” said Gulf Coast Business Council President Ashley Edwards. “Clearly this was an uphill battle to convince the rest of state to invest this kind of money in the Gulf Coast. I think the Senate and the leadership should be commended for having such a smooth process.”

Sens. Sollie Norwood of Jackson and Bob Dearing of Natchez, both Democrats, tried to divert money to the projects in their districts that weren’t on the list. Both of those amendments failed on voice votes.

“There is no doubt if this bill makes it through the House, it will be one of the most significant things to happen to the Gulf Coast,” Edwards said. “I think the chances of that are good. The Coast delegation and the speaker of the House have worked really hard to ensure they have support for the bill in that chamber.

“I am cautiously optimistic that this is going to go well in the House and this issue can be resolved successfully once and for all.”

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