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Transportation improvements, marine resource bills highlight legislative issues

Coast takes issues to Jackson

Roads, roads and more roads highlight the wish list of Coast leaders when it comes to the 2000 legislative session.

“We have got to do something about the highway problems up and down the Coast,” said Sen. Tommy Robertson of Jackson County. “The traffic is getting worse every day.”

Most of the attention has been focused on improving existing north/south corridors in Harrison County and building a new north/south corridor. Robertson said improvements to east/west corridors are also needed, particularly six-laning Interstate 10 all the way from the Louisiana to the Alabama state lines.

“On Friday or Sunday afternoons, it is dangerous out there on I-10 because of it only being a four-lane road,” Robertson said. “We hope to see the legislature approve matching funds to six-lane I-10, and continue to make progress on north-south corridors in Harrison County.”

Bobby Eleuterius, president of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors, said the county is hoping the legislature will allow a referendum on a proposed sales tax increase to build an east-west corridor in Harrison County.

“Transportation is our greatest need,” Eleuterius said. “Personally, I would prefer north-south corridor improvements more than east-west corridors. But most people are more concerned about the east-west corridors.”

One of the other biggest legislative issues on the Coast is funding for USM Gulf Coast this year. But with a tightening budget in the legislature, it now appears doubtful that the funding needed for the four-year university will be appropriated.

There are also a number of bills being considered that would affect marine resources. SB2600 would provide for the creation of a beach erosion and channel maintenance program to be administered by the department. Dr. Fred Deegan, deputy director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (DMR), said after a hurricane or other major storm sediments can deposit in a channel that need to be removed on an emergency basis. Storms can also cause erosion that threatens public infrastructure such as roads and utilities.

“It would be nice if a state agency had the wherewithall to do erosion control and channel dredging on an as-needed basis,” Deegan said.

DMR’s total budget request for the year is $18.5 million, an increase from last year largely associated with the need for additional law enforcement officers. Deegan said each year DMR is inundated by calls that demand having more law enforcement officers on the water.

“Just looking at the newspaper you can see boat and water safety accidents have dramatically increased in the past few years,” Deegan said. “We have had a lot more drownings and fatal boat accidents. The only way to curtail that is to have a more aggressive boat and water safety program, and also put more officers on the water. Law enforcement is an expensive operation. We spend a lot on water, fuel and equipment costs.”

More enforcement is needed as the boating population grows on the Coast. Statewide there were 244,000 boats on the water in 1996 compared to 282,000 boats in 1999. The largest concentration of boats in the state is on the Coast. Deegan said the state’s population grew 155,000 from 1990 to 1997, with about a third of that growth occurring in the three coastal counties.

DMR is also hoping to be able to improve salaries for the coastal ecology wetlands inspection staff. Coastal ecology staff review permits for activities such as casinos, other water-based businesses, piers, boathouses and dredging projects. Deegan said those particular positions are very important to the agency and the Gulf Coast.

“The permitting activity strives to maintain a balance between economic growth of marine-related industry and protection of the coastal wetlands that support our fisheries, which is a $750-million annual industry,” Deegan said. “We have had nearly $3 billion worth of marine-related activity in the past six years. Our coastal ecology office has become a training ground. They are trained, and then recruited and hired by local contractors or the federal government, and we lose them.

“So we are striving to get those salaries more in line with the private sector in hopes of being able to retain those people.”

The current average seniority of a biologist in the permitting area is less than four months. Even historically going back five or six years biologists were kept in state service for an average of only 16 months. Deegan said as soon as the coastal ecology staff are trained and skilled at doing their jobs, their talents are in such great demand that they can get a position paying much more elsewhere.

“So we feel an urgent need to get those positions re-aligned,” Deegan said. “Oftentimes we wind up with our former staff confronting us on an environmental issue with the training and skill they acquired by working at the agency,” Deegan said. “We’d like to keep that talent here at the agency. Permitting decisions don’t always go the way people particularly want to see them go. There are always pros and cons about these things. Whether or not the agency position is in favor of or opposed to a permit, it behooves us to have the best talent, scientists and coastal ecologists on our staff and not on the other side of the table.”

Other bills affecting marine resources include the following:

• SB 2670 would require a commercial gig fishing license for anyone who engages in that practice. A gig is a pole with a barbed point primarily used for spearing fish, primarily flounder.

• SB 2483 has provisions regarding penalties regarding seafood violations such as shrimp trawling in closed waters. Currently officers making the arrest are responsible for disposing of the catch, but officers in small skiffs don’t have enough room to load shrimp to take to shore for sale. This bill would make the violator responsible for selling the catch. Sale of the confiscated catch would be at the place of fisherman’s choosing as long as in Mississippi. Proceeds must be payable to DMR.

• SB 2588 would impose a separate $800 license fee for non-resident charter boats. If the applicant’s home state charges a greater fee for Mississippi residents, then the applicant has to pay the equivalent fee. In Louisiana, for example, Mississippi charter boats have to pay a license fee of about $2,000. Currently DMR doesn’t have a separate license for out-of-state charter operators.

• SB 2598 would give DMR the authority to remove derelict vessels from private canals. Although there aren’t many private waterways on the Coast, if a derelict vessels sink in a private canal and is leading oil or other hazardous materials, DMR believes it is in the best interests of public to remove it.

• SB 2601 is a housekeeping bill that would include push trawls as legal harvest gear for shrimp. They were inadvertently left out in a previous bill.

• SB 2599 would require all licensed commercial fishermen who don’t sell directly to a seafood dealer to obtain themselves a seafood license. DMR said this would allow better tracking of seafood products in order to protect public health.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com.

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