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Talks loom on dividing Mississippi’s oil spill damage money

Mississippi lawmakers are trying to determine how $700 million in oil spill damage payments should be divided, and who should spend the money.

Legislators were working on answers Wednesday, a day before the start of a special session, even though Gov. Phil Bryant didn’t include the issue on a list of items to be considered. Bryant spokesman Clay Chandler dividing the money that BP PLC is paying the state for lost tax revenue following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill is likely to be added later.

“I think it’s going to be worked out in the very near future,” said state Sen. Tommy Gollott, a Biloxi Republican who said he’s involved in talks.

Lawmakers from the Gulf Coast are under pressure after business leaders and others have complained about a deal that collapsed at the end of the regular session this spring.

Gulf Coast Business Council President Ashley Edwards and others say they fear lawmakers will fritter the windfall away on projects that don’t improve the region’s economy.

“You have a damaged economic engine that needs to be repaired,” Edwards said.

Some lawmakers from elsewhere argue the coast has no special claim to the money, since it was supposed to replace lost tax revenue that would have been spent in state budgets.

“We should divide it up among all 82 counties equally,” Rep. Tracy Arnold, a Booneville Republican, told reporters Monday.

Legislative leaders, though, appear to be supporting giving the lion’s share to Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties. Republican Reps. Scott Delano of Biloxi and Charles Busby of Pascagoula said a plan would give 75 percent of the money to those counties, and 25 percent to the rest of the state. Of $97.5 million now in the bank, $50 million would immediately go to particular projects across the state, while $47.5 million would go to funds to promote economic and community development on the coast. BP is also scheduled to make 15 payments of $40 million in the future. Of those, $30 million would go to coastal counties while $10 million would go to non-coastal counties.

A thornier issue is who will make the spending decisions. The state has already spent a little more than $50 million of the money, with lawmakers inserting projects into spending bills with little debate. Edwards and others said that’s the wrong way to decide how to spend money, if the goal is to promote an expanding economy.

Proposals right now call for the Mississippi Development Authority to run an application process for the Gulf Coast money, possibly spending it along the lines of current funds that build infrastructure for economic development and provide grants to lure employers. Coast lawmakers, though, want MDA to get some kind of oversight or advice as it spends the money.

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