On April 20, 2010, an explosion at the British Petroleum offshore drilling platform, Deepwater Horizon, operating in the Gulf of Mexico, caused nearly 5 million barrels of oil to gush into the ocean. Spewing uncontrollably for several months, much of it reached the shores of Mississippi, polluting beaches and wetlands, harming tourism, and devastating the vital fishing industry.
Last month, BP agreed to a payout of $18.7 billion in settlement money. Mississippi’s share will be more than $1.5 billion, with $750 million flowing directly into state coffers. The first installment is due this year.
And, predictably, the big spenders in Jackson, are already attempting to fabricate new ways to spend the settlement for pet projects around the state.
But there is one important question that must be answered before any discussion of specific appropriations: Should it be used statewide or confined to the lower six counties directly most affected?
In my opinion, the funds should go directly to only those southernmost counties that suffered because of the oil spill. And when the new legislative session convenes in January 2016, I will be introducing legislation, “The ‘Lower Six’ Relief and Restoration Act,” to prevent the money from being spent elsewhere in the state, as well as to keep it from being wasted on frivolous projects, as elected officials are inclined to do.
Debate has already begun among members of the legislature. One state representative, Robert Johnson, has recently said that the Gulf Coast “doesn’t exist on an island. It is part of the overall economic and infrastructure system for the State of Mississippi and as a result it also shares all of its problems.”
But he’s dead wrong. Jobs weren’t lost in north Mississippi, nor was tourism reduced. If anything it increased.
So why should the BP funds, which are provided in order to compensate those on the Coast who were hurt by the disaster, go anywhere else?
And why should we not make absolutely certain that the money is not used in corrupt and fraudulent ways?
That’s just good, responsible government.
But it’s also about our less-than-stellar track record on public corruption, most notably with funds allocated after Hurricane Katrina. It is an issue I raised during my campaign against Thad Cochran and I was excoriated in the media for it. Yet that does not diminish the issue’s importance, nor will it diminish my passion to see that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and appropriately.
In the aftermath of Katrina, vast amounts of federal dollars were targeted for Mississippi, Louisiana, and the rest of the Gulf South affected by the storm. The purpose of those funds was to reconstruct the coast, which suffered widespread, catastrophic damage and destruction.
But, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, sending government money to a disaster zone is like shoveling fleas across a barnyard. Not half of it gets there.
Out of more than $23 billion appropriated by Congress for Hurricane Katrina relief in the first year following the disaster, there was more than $2 billion in direct fraud. That’s approaching ten percent of the total allocation of funds. The federal government’s own accountability office, the GAO, estimates that FEMA, which is in charge of much of the spending, lost 1 out of every 6 dollars spent to either fraud, waste, or some form of abuse in the process of doling out the first $6 billion in relief and recovery funds.
Members of Congress also improperly took the opportunity to spend hurricane relief money on other projects in states and districts nowhere near the Gulf Coast. Ted Stevens got projects for Alaska, as did Harry Reid for Nevada.
Taxpayer money was flowing everywhere, and not all of it was getting to where it was supposed to be, nor was it doing what it was supposed to be doing.
I don’t want to see a repeat of the Katrina mismanagement with the BP settlement funds.
To that end, the legislature should act to create a Gulf Coast Relief and Restoration Fund, whereby incoming BP monies are specifically held in trust for projects on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (the “lower-six” counties). Likewise, we must develop processes and procedures for preventing mismanagement and corruption, including the creation of an anti-fraud commission tasked with increased transparency and online accountability. We also need contracting reform procedures, which guarantee integrity in the bidding process. By reviewing contract awards to ensure compliance with competitive procurement requirements, we can finally root out the political favoritism and cronyism that dominated South Mississippi after Katrina. Moreover, with any project utilizing BP funds, Mississippi’s coastal businesses should be given preferential bidding treatment when compared to foreign entities.
Although this is not taxpayer dollars, the legislature should do the right thing — specifically provide the money for those areas most affected by the oil spill and make sure it’s not wasted, stolen or misdirected in the process.
The BP funds should benefit all the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, not just a powerful few.