Break out the ticker tape! That’s the latest suggestion for Mobile and Baldwin counties from Montgomery’s politicians, and I don’t exactly disagree. Last week, just days after the epic failure in legislative leadership that brought down the lottery bill, the Alabama Legislature managed to pass a bill providing for the allocation of about $640 million in BP settlement money, $120 million of which will go to funding road projects here on the Gulf Coast. That’s a success all on the coast can celebrate … and one politicians from the rest of the state will bemoan.
The difference in rhetoric is stark. From politicians representing the coast, praise of the plan, which passed with bipartisan support in both houses, is abundant.
“Mobile and Baldwin counties get $120 million for road projects,” Rep. Barbara Drummond of Mobile wrote on social media after the bill’s passage. “[These projects] will improve evacuation routes and save precious lives!”
Among the public, too, support for coastal spending of the state’s BP settlement was — and is — quite popular. In a recent WKRG/Strategy Inc. poll, 79 percent of all Alabamians, not just those on the coast, said they support all or most of the BP settlement going to the coast. Only about 21 percent thought all or most should go directly into the state’s general fund coffers.
But for some others — mostly politicians from well inland — funding the coast wasn’t the most fair of proposals.
“So as we were dealing with the [BP] bill,” Rep. Phil Williams of Madison County wrote on Facebook, “my friends in the Legislature from Baldwin and Mobile counties decided they wanted an additional $191,000,000 in addition to the above settlements for their road pork. Twice they shut down the regular session and would let no other bill be debated. Our leadership ultimately sided with them and gave them $120,000,000 for their road pork.”
Williams went on to explain, then, why he voted no, and his “moral of the story.”
“I voted no on the BP bill. These funds … could have been used to further pay off our massive debt. My moral of the story: given certain scenarios, the government will suck unlimited funds from any industry. South Alabama legislators are the best negotiators. If their local areas do not throw them a ticker-tape parade this weekend then they do not understand how ‘good’ their delegation is at bringing home the bacon.”
I guess it’s time to break out the ticker tape.
As for the rest of the $640 million allocated from the BP settlement, $162 million will go to repaying the state general-fund Rainy Day Account, $238 million will go to repaying the Alabama Trust Fund and $120 million will go to the Medicaid program, which provides health care to low-income Alabamians, mostly children.
Although the BP bill passed both the House and the Senate with widespread support (22-8 in the Senate and 87-9 in the House), much of the commotion that did come with its passage revolved around Medicaid. Some senators — from both sides of the aisle — wanted more of the BP settlement cash to go to the Medicaid program, which has struggled for funding for years. Democratic Sen. Bobby Singleton and Republican Sen. Arthur Orr both supported paying less to pay off the state’s debt and paying more to fund Medicaid, but their efforts to change the bill ultimately failed.
Sen. Linda Coleman fired off on the issue on social media, saying that south Alabama’s road project funding was at the expense of additional Medicaid funding.
“The ironic thing is this session was called to fund Medicaid,” Coleman wrote, “but it appears the real reason the session was called was to fund roads for two counties out of the BP money. We all knew that after the lottery failed the only option to fund Medicaid was to use BP money.”
Sen. Coleman also criticized the governor for what she called a lack of leadership.
“The governor has been absent and silent, we have been told there is some other money available but no one has confirmed this although ‘they’ say the information comes from the governor’s office. Again, we continue to play games. It’s time for the people of Alabama to wake up, don’t wait and wonder what happened when [the federal Medicaid administrators] say they are not going to give the state the money.”
As for Gov. Robert Bentley, he virtually ran a victory lap around the capitol when the BP bill gained final passage.
“I truly believe that this is a victory,” Bentley said to press shortly after the bill’s passage. “This is a victory for the people of the state of Alabama, especially those who cannot help themselves. There are 500,000 poor children in this state that did not choose to be poor, and we have to take care of them. So what we saw today was us shoring up, as best we could, our Medicaid program.”
While most south Alabama politicians were satisfied with the BP compromise, Sen. Vivian Figures said the bill was just another Band-Aid for a broken bone.
“I’ll just be glad for a day when this Legislature can stop depending on and looking for one-time money that comes to Alabama and step up to the plate and find sustainable revenue for the general fund, which includes Medicaid,” Sen. Figures said in a statement.
“It’s not just Medicaid that doesn’t get adequately funded every year. It’s the Mental Health Department, and also the Department of Corrections. So at some point we’ve got to step up to the plate and find sustainable revenue that we can depend on every year to fund the General Fund budget.”
And while it may seem cynical, Figures is right. BP cash may have bailed us out this legislative session, but it can’t bail us out forever. Maybe it’s not quite time to break out the ticker tape.