The Department of Marine Resources finally has a budget almost two months after the start of the fiscal year, but the issues that led to the impasse will likely appear in next year’s session.
State Sen. Scott Delano, R-Biloxi, told the Northside Sun that the Legislature “kicked the can down the road” on the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act funds after passing a $49 million budget for DMR last week, which had gone without a budget for two months.
House Bill 1726 went to conference twice with lawmakers unable to reach a compromise before adjournment and lawmakers were prevented to returning sooner after a number of them caught the COVID-19 virus.
After years of the DMR and the governor’s office coordinating to select projects, the Legislature will now be involved in the process at least for this fiscal year.
“It was truly a compromise to get them (DMR) funded this year and deal with GOMESA next year,” Delano said. “We told the governor we’re watching and expect him to show us a proactive effort to coordinate projects to benefit the needs of our marine resources. I have confidence in the governor he will get this done.”
Joe Spraggins, a former U.S. Air Force brigadier general who has been the executive director of DMR since 2018, told the Northside Sun that the stop-work orders his agency had to place on several in-progress projects could end up costing taxpayers more money.
“Once we did these stop-work orders on these construction projects at cities and towns and counties on the Gulf Coast, some of the contractors had to demobilize and then remobilize equipment and it’s going to cost us fees for that,” Spraggins said. “Some of the situations we’d gotten to a certain point, such as with those projects dealing with erosion, because they stopped the project, it started to erode again. We don’t know 100 percent at this point, but I can tell you it will cost us something.”
Some of the GOMESA projects authorized last year by then-Gov. Phil Bryant included a sand renourishment project in Jackson County, work on the Back Bay in Biloxi to remove erosion-preventing riprap rocks and replace them with natural shoreline and the creation of dunes on the beach in Harrison County to prevent erosion of sand onto U.S. 90.
He also said the agency had to furlough many of its employees after its appropriation ran out on July 1 for eight days, after which Gov. Tate Reeves’ office was able to secure some funding by bringing forward some federal and special state funds for some limited work such as law enforcement and seafood testing.
Those special funds include income from license sales and other agency incomes.
“I just want to thank Gov. Reeves, because if it hadn’t been for him and his staff working hard to find ways for us to be able to escalate funds to do things, the agency would’ve been in a lot worse shape than it is today,” Spraggins said. “Gov. Reeves was the one to step up to the plate to do that. I also thank the Legislature, both the House and the Senate, for coming together and coming to an understanding to work this out."
The focus of the disagreement in the Legislature concerned who's ultimately in charge of selecting projects for GOMESA funds. Now the Legislature will play a role in the process.
GOMESA funds originate from a federal revenue sharing program created in 2006 for oil and natural gas leasing revenues. These funds are divided among the states that border the Gulf of Mexico and are intended for coastal protection, damage mitigation to fish, wildlife and natural resources and implementation of a federally approved conservation management plan.
Spraggins said he’s received orders from Reeves and is working with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality to come up with a list of projects for next fiscal year that will preserve coastal ecosystems in addition to adding to their economic value.
“Once the Legislature has a chance to take a look at what Gov. Reeves is going to bring forward, I don’t think there’ll be an issue after that,” Spraggins said.
Mississippi receives 16.3 percent of the GOMESA revenues, with Louisiana (38.8 percent) and Texas (29.8 percent) receiving the most and Alabama (15.1 percent) the least.
DMR will spend $7.3 million for tidelands projects in Jackson, Harrison and Hancock counties, with $5.1 million for public access projects, $1.2 million earmarked for bond repayment and more than $1 million for management projects.
Some of the bigger GOMESA projects in the conference report include:
- $1.636 million for the city of Gulfport to assist with the Mississippi Aquarium.
- $5.775 million for the University of Southern Mississippi’s Ocean Enterprise Project.
- $1.934 million for Biloxi’s East Biloxi Boardwalk and $1 million for sand renourishment in that area.
- $1.791 million for the Coffee Creek water quality project.
- $2 million for Buccaneer State Park.
- $2.653 million for Biloxi’s Bayview Avenue Boardwalk.
- $2 million for oyster reefs