Department of Marine Resources funding remains in limbo

DMR Marine Patrol officers are among the employees with an uncertain future after the state...
DMR Marine Patrol officers are among the employees with an uncertain future after the state legislature failed to fund the agency today.(John Fitzhugh)
Updated: Aug. 11, 2020 at 7:54 PM CDT
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BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - Funding for the Department of Marine Resources has become a political football.

The legislature left Jackson Tuesday without funding the state agency, leaving the employees with an uncertain future.

“This is uncharted territory,” said Gov. Tate Reeves during his daily press conference. “I’ve been around 17 years and even when Billy McCoy was Speaker and Haley Barber was governor, we didn’t find ourselves in late, mid to late August with a state agency that wasn’t funded.”

The result is the agency responsible for policing and maintaining the ecology of the Coast waters is in limbo.

“It is frustrating certainly for those DMR workers who need their pay,” said Sen. Brice Wiggins of Pascagoula.

DMR Director General Joe Spraggins deferred all questions about the funding dispute to the governor’s office.

When asked Tuesday about how the agency will continue to operate, Reeves said “I can’t answer today exactly what that looks like, but we are certainly having conversations, and that includes with our legal staff, with the finance administration legal staff, with the Department of Marine Resources legal staff and trying to figure out exactly what that looks like, what obligation do we have at this point, and can we continue to keep the agency open.”

When the agency went unfunded in July, emergency spending measures were put into place, but some of the agency’s workers were furloughed and the future for employees is uncertain again after the legislature failed to act.

“My heart breaks for the 150-plus personnel that work at the Department of Marine Resources,” Reeves said. “They don’t deserve to be put through this fight. They don’t know necessarily where their next paycheck is going to come from.”

Not everyone was surprised when the House rejected a Senate committee proposal for funding for the DMR.

“It’s certainly frustrating,” Wiggins said. “I didn’t think it was a done deal based on my dealings back when we broke at the end of the session. To me, it wasn’t a done deal just knowing what was coming out of the house. It’s not like we’re reinventing the wheel. The Senate has wanted us to continue doing what has been done before with a little tweak here and there, but that is clearly not what the House wants.”

The dispute is how much oversight the legislature has over GOMESA funding that comes to the state from oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

While the GOMESA charter said that money should be spent on projects that benefit the ecology of coastal counties, some of that money has gone to projects with uncertain benefits.

“This is a back and forth about the oversight,” Wiggins said. “We don’t micromanage agencies.”

Reeves said he is “forced” to consider a special session to fund the agency, though no timetable has been made for that.

In the meantime, DMR employees will presumably continue working until they are told otherwise.

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