State Rep. Margie Wilcox said she got an idea to earmark half of the state’s $1 billion economic settlement with BP for road projects in Alabama’s coastal counties “immediately” after Gov. Robert Bentley announced the money was destined for the state’s general fund July 2.
The state’s $1 billion settlement with BP, which is unrelated to additional Clean Water Act fines and will be paid over a period of 18 years, is currently slated to go directly into the state’s general fund. Wilcox admitted the state did see some economic damage as a result of lost sales tax revenue after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but suggested it was not anywhere near $1 billion.
Now, Wilcox is working up a bill that would redirect $500 million of the settlement to Mobile and Baldwin counties through Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) projects and an allocation to assist coastal residents with homeowners insurance reform.
“We’re asking for there to be some fairness in this, in that Mobile and Baldwin counties were the harmed parties,” Wilcox said. “If we can get these funds, have some important road and infrastructure to show for it and give our coastal residents help on homeowners insurance reform — that would be a long-lasting impact for our citizens.”
Specifically, Wilcox said her bill would allocate $200 million to each coastal county and an additional $100 million toward homeowners insurance reform. Wilcox also told Lagniappe she’s been working with the support of the legislative delegations in both counties on the bill she called a “win-win” for Bentley and communities directly affected by the oil spill.
According to Wilcox, redirecting the money for transportation projects through ALDOT keeps it within the control of state. Wilcox said the bill’s current draft aims to put the funding toward the matching portion of a long-awaited Interstate 10 Mobile River bridge project in Mobile County and the continued expansion of the road system in Baldwin County, among other projects.
Completely separate from state’s settlement, Mobile and Baldwin counties will continue to see economic and environmental projects paid for through other funding streams related to the federal government’s settlement with BP and Transocean. Those funding sources include the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and the roughly $599 million of projects that will be allocated by Alabama’s Gulf Coast Recovery Council via the RESTORE Act.
“One thing we have to explain is that there are other pots of money for environmental restoration,” Wilcox said. “This is really the one pot of money that was designated for a settlement of tax losses, and while the state saw economic losses, we don’t think the state had $1 billion of economic loss.”
Wilcox’s plan had just been unveiled last Tuesday when Bentley suggested it wouldn’t happen without a fight from the state. On Monday, Bentley told a WKRG reporter at the Economic Development Association of Alabama’s Summer Conference in Point Clear the plan “wasn’t going to happen” and the money “belongs to the state of Alabama.”
But Wilcox said it was too early to speak to a possible tussle with Bentley and other legislators. Instead, she said, the local delegation would be in touch with their colleagues across the state to “see what kind of support” they could get.
Wilcox did say she plans to introduce the bill when the legislature returns for a special session to address the general-fund deficit on Aug. 3. If the bill were to get support in the House and Senate, it would require only a simple majority within both legislative houses to override an executive veto.
Council opts for “closed” work sessions
On Wednesday, July 15, the representatives of several state, county and city governments met as Alabama’s Gulf Coast Recovery Council (AGCRC) for the first time since the total $2.3 billion settlement with BP was announced earlier this month.
Absent from the meeting were members of the media and the general public, who were not permitted to attend the closed working session. On his way out, Gunter Guy, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation of Natural Resources overseeing the AGCRC, said the members of the council chose to operate in secret in the name of “efficiency.”
“It’s a federally created council, so it’s not subject to state open meetings law,” Guy said. “I can’t really speak for the council, but I don’t think it was an effort to keep anybody out. It’s more of an effort to keep it about work and to keep things as efficient as possible. It’s how they as a council wanted to handle their work sessions.”
Though it was only a work session, Guy said binding decisions about the procedures could be made behind closed doors, but not about projects funded through the council’s ongoing selection process.
However, during a similar closed meeting last fall, the council earmarked the $56 million available in one of the RESTORE Act’s funding streams for economic development projects alone. The move wasn’t announced until a public meeting a week later, at which time the council didn’t take a vote on the matter.
After Wednesday’s meeting, AGCRC Vice Chairman and Alabama State Port Authority CEO Jimmy Lyons echoed Guy’s statements, calling the closed working sessions “purely an efficiency maneuver.”
As for the meeting itself, Lyons said the council focused on policies and procedures like the Multi-Year Implementation Plan (MIP) that will ultimately guide how projects are allocated. The MIP is a broad plan required by the RESTORE Act that will outline the overall goals in the council’s vision for restoration.
He also said a subgroup had been created to review applications for the “Center for Excellence” that will work in tandem with the council over the coming years to guide project allocation and coastal recovery. However, he said, the council “didn’t discuss one specific project.”
“We’ve been focused more on the process,” Lyons said. “A lot of people keep thinking we’re huddled up in secret, talking about projects, dividing up and horse trading, but that’s not what’s been happening. We really have been legitimately talking about the process we’re going to have to adhere to.”