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House balks at Senate plan for oil spill damage account

Mississippi lawmakers may be unable to decide this year how to spend $750 million in oil spill damage payments, with sniping between House and Senate members after a bill died at a Tuesday deadline for action when the House Appropriations Committee didn’t bring it up.

House members from Mississippi’s coast said Senate Bill 2634 didn’t have the detailed structure they wanted to determine how the money would be distributed. Sixteen bipartisan representatives from Gulf Coast counties stated jointly that “no action is better than passing a bill that only gives the appearance of action.”

But Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and state Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said they feared the failure to act would only increase pressure to spend the money away from the Gulf Coast. Reeves called the decision “mind-boggling.”

“I’m really concerned that this will be the day that the House made the decision that they would spend the money all over the state,” Reeves, a Republican, told The Associated Press.

For now, money that BP agreed to give Mississippi for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico is deposited in a general budget account. Lawmakers agreed to spend about $40 million of the first $150 million last year. The remaining payments to compensate Mississippi for lost tax revenue will be made over 17 years.

Reeves had touted his decision to make sure all the economic damage money went to coast. But Scott Delano, R-Biloxi, said the proposal didn’t adequately protect the money from being raided, although it’s unclear how current lawmakers could prevent raids by future lawmakers without a state constitutional amendment, which would require a statewide referendum.

Delano said a substitute had been prepared in the House but said coastal lawmakers chose not to go forward because they feared they wouldn’t be able to fend off other House members.

“The fact that we didn’t act this year, I’m not losing sleep over that,” Delano said. “We want to get it right.”

Delano said the top priority of House members is to spend the money on projects that will create more tax revenue and avoid having it used for infrastructure projects that would normally be paid for by borrowing money.

Wiggins said he sent a letter Monday to House members telling them he was “totally fine” if they sent an amended version of the bill back to the Senate.

“The House has had ample opportunity to present a plan to their members and the membership in the Senate,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins said he would ask Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, to call a special session to address the issue. Both Wiggins and Delano said they expect the Legislature to spend an additional chunk of the money this year. Delano said that might be acceptable if more lawmakers have input. Wiggins, though, warns the money is “ripe for the picking” by noncoastal interests.

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