JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Part of Mississippi's oil spill settlement money would be set aside to help pay for transportation improvements statewide, under a proposal that moved through the House but is likely to stall in the Senate.
The plan came from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, who presented it as a way to pay for highway and bridge repairs without increasing the gasoline tax. Gulf Coast representatives opposed Smith's idea, saying the settlement money should be spent in the part of the state most affected by the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Mississippi is scheduled to receive $150 million the first year of the settlement, and Smith's plan would put $50 million of that into a fund to help repay bonds for projects such as highway and bridge repairs.
House Bill 1386 passed the House 101-20 on Tuesday and moves to the Senate, where Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves opposes it.
"Some in the Legislature cannot resist their insatiable appetite to borrow and spend — in this instance borrowing against future revenue and spending money that we have not even yet received," Reeves said last week. "I will continue to fight to spend the vast majority of this BP money in south Mississippi, and I feel certain that coast legislators, both in the House and Senate, will join me in this effort."
Under a multistate oil spill settlement announced in July, Mississippi is to receive almost $2.2 billion. About $1.5 billion is designated for environmental restoration and economic development. The Legislature will decide how to spend $750 million over 17 years, with the state scheduled to receive first $150 million payment in the next few months.
Department of Transportation executive director Melinda McGrath told lawmakers last month that $526 million more a year is needed to repair more than one-third of Mississippi's highways and nearly one-fourth of its bridges. Legislators could discuss a gasoline tax increase in the next several weeks.
During debate Tuesday, House Transportation Committee Chairman Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, tried to reserve the oil spill settlement money for transportation projects in the three coastal counties. He said that would make other, unspecified sources of money available for highways and bridges elsewhere.
"The net impact of this is not harmful to the rest of the state," Busby said.
The House rejected his proposal.
"The whole state needs help, not just the Gulf Coast," Smith said.
Smith also said of the oil spill: "It was man-made, but the good Lord let it happen."
Moments later, a coast lawmaker disagreed.
"I don't think the good Lord above had anything to do with the Macondo well rupturing and all this oil hitting our shores," said Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis.