We got screwed.
There’s really no other way to say it. The travesty of a BP settlement that was passed off as a “big victory” for the state by the Luv Guv last week is as cynical a political move as any we’re likely to ever see.
Less than a fifth of the $640 million legislators were wrangling over last week actually ended up being designated for the two coastal counties actually directly affected by the 200 million gallons of oil that spilled into the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon exploded. And that money will go straight into roads and bridges — something that hardly will have a long-lasting or transformative effect.
The rest of the money is going to pay for things the state should already be able to handle if it weren’t being financially mismanaged. Medicaid will get $120 million for the next two years, which might keep the wolf from the door a little longer, and the other $400 million is being dumped into the Alabama Trust Fund to pay for the many times it’s been raided over the past seven years.
The easy part of this is to be outraged that the rest of the state is benefiting from money that — in theory at least — should have gone to areas actually affected by the oil spill. But really what we all ought to be outraged by is how this money is being spent like a redneck’s paycheck on Friday night.
There’s no real thought for the future here.
First and foremost, because Alabama is a penniless bum in the family of states, we sold this so-called $1 billion settlement for 79 cents on the buck. In other words, we’re going to bonds to get $640 million in fast cash right now to plug a few leaks that will be back soon, and then pay them off with $850 million of that settlement. So more than $200 million, or 20 percent, will go to the bankers just so we can get money now. I don’t know if we could’ve gotten a worse deal at a payday loan place.
BP will pay the $1 billion over 18 years, so basic math would suggest that leaves the state getting a little more than $8 million a year of the remaining settlement. Without the bond deal, the state would have had $55 million in unencumbered money coming in annually. Think about what might have been done with that if Alabama was financially sound in the first place.
I know, “what if?”
Clearly I’m not in the political majority here, but I’ve always thought all the BP money should be spent doing things that improve the ability of Alabamians to get closer to nature and to improve our own environmental tourism opportunities, particularly along the coast. But I’m sure as a coastal county politician it’s hard not to lick your chops thinking about spreading $120 million around in Mobile and Baldwin counties for road and bridge construction. And I’m sure those road and bridge construction companies who are often so generous when it comes time to donate to political campaigns are pretty excited about $120 million flowing into the pipeline.
I get that there’s the temptation to spend the money that way and say, “Well, there are other parts of the BP settlement meant for environmental improvements.” But it’s funny how nobody seems to be talking about the environmental spending with as clear a vision as there is for dumping hundreds of millions into general fund spending or paving roads.
Perhaps I need to be more practical. After all, this is pretty much “free” money. We all know 2010 brought a revenue downturn for the state, primarily because of tourism money lost at “the beach,” but since then things have been on the rise and the coast has had “banner years.” Those tar balls didn’t keep people away for long.
It sure seems the “found money” aspects of the BP settlements have led to a rather frivolous attitude about how it should be spent. We sort of won the lottery and are spending the money like many lottery winners often do. If you suddenly see public employees driving porsches as “state cars” you’ll know the lottery mindset has completely taken over.
When the settlements were first announced a couple of years ago there was a lot of excitement among those who would get to divvy up the dough. Remember the many pie-in-the-sky projects proposed when we thought BP was going to fly in a cargo plane loaded with Swiss francs? Once it became clear the payments were going to take almost 20 years, a lot of those big projects went away. Now we’re dealing with the reality that the vast majority of that money is going to pay bills. Boring.
There’s no doubt getting $120 million for Mobile and Baldwin counties to fix our roads and bridges is a nice thing, but I’ve got to think half of that could go into just fixing the potholes on Ann Street. Even if the money was going to be spent in ways that have nothing to do with getting us closer to nature, etc., it still seems like a lot more of the $640 million should have been sent to the coast.
Watching it get flushed into taking care of the general fund and Medicaid because the state can’t find a way out of its incessant financial problems just seems like a waste. Even if the price we paid environmentally may not have had as long-lasting an effect as originally predicted, Mobile and Baldwin counties did pay what toll there was. Even if it is “found money” to a degree, we should have gotten more.
So even when I’m driving over some nice new roads and bridges in a couple of years, it’s going to be hard to not still be thinking we got screwed.
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