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Mississippi House delays ultimate fight over oil spill money

A fight over how Mississippi officials should divide $750 million in compensation from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill will wait for another day.

House members passed two bills Wednesday intended as that body’s spending plan. But representatives who say areas outside Mississippi’s three coastal counties should get a substantial share of the economic damages being paid by BP PLC didn’t immediately contest the proposals. They said they will press their case later.

The Senate is pushing Senate Bill 2176, which would designate the entire amount for the Gulf Coast, with lawmakers deciding later on how to spend it. Mississippi is being paid the money over a series of years in return for lost tax revenue after a 2005 explosion unleashed millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the money has already been received and spent.

Gulf Coast House members support House Bills 1185 and 1512, to create ways allowing others besides lawmakers to make spending decisions. They want the money to flow automatically to accounts that lawmakers don’t control to prevent them from being tempted to use the money to fill budget holes. Mississippi lawmakers once pledged to save a $4 billion tobacco settlement over 25 years. But under budget pressures during the Great Recession, lawmakers drained the tobacco trust fund and are now rolling the yearly payments into the state budget.

To avoid that, House Bill 1512 calls for sending most money to a Gulf Coast Restoration Fund, with six members appointed by officials in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties and three coastal residents appointed by the governor. The board would choose projects in three counties that would improve the coastal region’s economy, quality of life, or business infrastructure.

The remainder of the money would be sent to funds administered by the Mississippi Development Authority that mirror the lines of the state’s planning and development districts outside the coastal counties, with MDA accepting applications on how that money should be spent.

“We’re not the economic development experts in this state. We want to leave that up to MDA to figure out,” Rep. Charles Busby, a Pascagoula Republican, told the House.

House Bill 1185 originally said 80 percent of the money, or $600 million, would go to projects in the three coastal counties, while the remaining $150 million would be spent in the state’s other 79 counties. After changes, though, the bill is now just a shell that can be amended later.

“There is no division of the funds in here,” Busby said. “There’s only the mechanism of dividing the money. That decision has not been made yet.”

The bills passed with little debate, but supporters of spending more money in areas away from the coast say they believe there will be other opportunities to fight for a larger share of the money. Some north Mississippi lawmakers want to spend all the money on roads and bridges.

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