GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - Gulf Coast businesses and organizations are getting a little more guidance for submitting projects for potential funding from the BP oil spill settlement.
Ahead of the upcoming legislative session, 77 projects were sent in for consideration. And while the latest deadline passed at the end of August, the Mississippi Development Authority is still taking applications for the state legislature to review for future sessions.
Now comes the hard work of weeding through the most recent submissions to decide which ones are worthy of funding.
Thursday morning, Senators Joel Carter and Mike Thompson talked with the Gulf Coast Business Council about the need for the legislature to have more conversations with local business leaders about proposed Gulf Coast Restoration Fund projects, in order to help state leaders make better decisions with the pot of money.
“We don’t want to be up there voting on projects that are bad projects. We don’t want that perception,” Carter said. “We have a huge opportunity right now... It’s a leadership change, our first year with this process. We made some mistakes, but we’ll do better with the upcoming legislative session.”
Among the 27 projects approved in the first round of funding by the legislature, only eight were recommended by the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund Advisory Board. But 75% of the total $700 million settlement must be spent in the lower six counties.
Carter said he doesn’t think all the projects in the bill were bad. It was more the process that he didn’t agree with, and he promises lawmakers will do a better job next year.
“Strength comes in numbers. It’s very important the business community and the coast delegation are on the same page,” Carter said. “When we’re up in Jackson and trying to get things done, we tend to lean on our business leaders and we need to do a better job of it.”
To improve communication, Thompson said he’d like to see more interaction between legislators and the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund Advisory Board.
“I would like to create some opportunities for the advisory board to come up and visit with the coast delegation... Tell us why these are your top five projects. ‘Hey, there was a project in my district that I really liked, but didn’t score very well.’ Let’s talk about that and just create some more communication.”
“I don’t know if folks realize how that process works,” Thompson explained. “The projects that get submitted to the MDA portal, all are brought to the legislature... That leaves a lot of work for us to wade through and to sift through. Then those project stakeholders don’t hesitate to reach out to us separate from the work the advisory board does for us. So we have a lot of input coming at us and it takes time to work through that.”
Thompson said he’d like to front load that process, and go in to the session with more information in hand.
“Instead of everything being pushed to the end of the session, in the beginning of the session we get the binder of 77 projects from the advisory board. Then we’ll be able to have our own initial review of it, and then let the advisory board and MDA come talk to us about why these projects scored the way they did. What MDA sees as far as implementing the projects and spending the money,” Thompson said. “Then hopefully, with communication and more involvement with all, state voters come out with a better product.”
So what are lawmakers looking for? The senators were asked to describe the “ideal project” to receive BP funding, RESTORE Act, or Gulf Coast Restoration Funds.
“For me, it’s all about investment and matching return on the fund," Carter said. "You’re talking about a lot of money. It’s one time money that we won’t get again. You see what happened in Gulf Shores. I have a real estate office in Foley. A lot of people here retreat there. We have a great opportunity to build things that attract people from different communities and establish ourselves as a premier destination for the nation. We just need to spend this money wisely.”
“For me, I first asked what does transformative mean? Really, it’s going to mean different things to different people. What could be transformative to Pass Christian, in my district, may not be transformative to the exact same project in Gulfport for different reasons," Thompson said. "It’s going to have to be local focused, but also be projects that are sustainable and won’t require us to come in 5-10 years and prop them up. I don’t want to create a burden for taxpayers going forward. I want projects that can stand on their own. We’ll get you started and built, but the test for me is if you can’t get private funding for this, is it a good use of state funds with this one time money from GCRF? I want to make sure it’s projects that are sustainable, transformative. That’s for the locals to decide. That’s for the individual applicants, and if it’s something that you really need. But let’s make sure it’s projects that can - once built and funded - they can continue without a great deal of stress and won’t be a burden on taxpayers.”
For more information on the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund’s rules and regulations, or to download an application, visit: https://www.mississippi.org/gcrf/