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As storms head toward Gulf Coast, Legislature slated to return Monday to pass DMR budget

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Mississippi State Capitol building in Jackson.

The Mississippi Legislature is scheduled to convene at 4 p.m. Monday to try to pass a budget for the Department of Marine Resources, which has been in limbo from a fight between the Legislature and Gov. Tate Reeves over spending authority.

Passing the agency’s budget has taken on new urgency, as it would reportedly face problems making payroll by the end of the month, and as two tropical storms, one a potential hurricane, bear down on the Gulf Coast.

DMR, which provides regulatory and marine law enforcement services on the Gulf Coast, has been without a state budget since July 1.

Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann are calling the Legislature back into session.

At issue is oversight of Gulf restoration funds Mississippi receives for oil and gas leases. The Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, or GOMESA, is a federal revenue sharing program for oil and gas producing states in the Gulf. For this year, the state has about $46 million in GOMESA funds.

Legislative sources on Friday said a deal has been made for lawmakers to leave about $26 million allocated for projects already approved or started. Of the remaining money for this year, $10 million would be left for the governor to approve the projects, as has been done since the program’s inception. For the remaining $10 million, projects would be submitted to the Legislature for its approval.

The deal would apply only to this year’s DMR budget and GOMESA funds. Moving forward, lawmakers would continue to haggle over what control the governor or Legislature has over the projects and spending.

Legislative sources said there is some urgency in resolving the issue and passing a DMR budget. The agency will reportedly have trouble meeting payroll by the end of the month, and there are two tropical storms bearing down on the Gulf, which could make landfall Monday to midweek. DMR would need budget and spending flexibility to handle emergency work in marine waters before and after a storm.

Since its inception in 2006, then-Mississippi Govs. Haley Barbour and Phil Bryant controlled approval of GOMESA projects vetted by DMR as the revenue started out small but continued to grow.

In recent years, lawmakers and others have questioned whether projects chosen are helping coastal restoration and protection, or if they are just pet political projects.

Millions in GOMESA funds have been granted to build boardwalks near casinos, a planned aquarium in Gulfport — including a tram system threatened to be “de-obligated” for not meeting GOMESA requirements — and other projects critics have said don’t meet the intended purpose.

This year, House lawmakers wanted to include legislative oversight of GOMESA spending in DMR’s budget, saying the Legislature, not the governor, controls state purse strings. Gov. Tate Reeves called the move a “power grab” and said he should continue to control the money as his predecessors did. Coast lawmakers have been divided over the issue.

The Senate, over which Reeves presided for eight years as lieutenant governor, has balked at stripping the GOMESA spending authority from the governor.

Lawmakers set the rest of a $6 billion state budget and left town July 1 still at an impasse over the DMR budget. They had plans to return within a week and haggle out DMR’s budget, but a COVID-19 outbreak at the Capitol infected 49 legislators and had the Capitol shut down for weeks.

Lawmakers reconvened earlier in August, in large part to override Reeves’ veto of most of the public education budget. Lawmakers successfully squashed his veto, the first time since 2002 the Legislature has overridden a governor’s veto, but remained at an impasse over the DMR budget and GOMESA spending.

Normally the Legislature would not be able to convene itself this late in the year and would be dependent on the governor to call a special session. Earlier this year, though,  the Legislature approved a resolution allowing them to reconvene to deal with COVID-19 issues. The Legislature presumably could convene for the pandemic, and then take up non-coronavirus related issues.


This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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