By Beth Clayton
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—In 2011, Governor Robert Bentley stood on the Capitol steps to deliver his inaugural address. Governor Bentley promised the people of Alabama that he would not take a paycheck until Alabama reached defined full employment.
“We are going to have to be creative. Agencies that are not typically focused on job creation will certainly have to be now. Whether it is the Department of Transportation installing a turn lane so a Dollar General store can open on time or the Conservation Department helping to create and build a state-of-the-art convention center at Gulf Shores, our state’s mission from today forward is creating jobs for Alabamians.”
Two years after making this promise, Governor Bentley stood in the State House to watch the vote on SB231, the bill to build a lodge and convention center at Gulf State Park.
The bill passed the House 75-24, and Governor Bentley is expected to sign it into law.
“This is one of the most significant projects that we have ever undertaken in this state,” Bentley said. ‘This is something that six governors have tried to get done and nobody has ever gotten it off.”
The Gulf State Park project is part of the early restoration through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process resulting from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In addition to $8.2 million in ecological restorations throughout Mobile and Baldwin Counties, the project consists of $80.5 million in improvements to Gulf State Park.
“We’re going to expand the park. It’s going to be an educational venture as far as ecology is concerned,” Bentley said.
In addition to contributing to the construction of the lodge and meeting facility, the Governor’s plan will construct an environmental research and education facility and a coastal ecosystems interpretive center, as well as enhance trails and restore dunes along the park’s undeveloped beachfront.
In addition to the direct benefits to the Gulf State Park and Baldwin County, these upgrades will help the state as a whole, said Representative Steve McMillan (R-Bay Minette), who sponsored the bill in the House.
“The tourism industry in Alabama has a huge economic impact. Visitors spent $10.5 billion in Alabama in 2012, with $702 million in taxes collected and $39 million going to the state general fund. 75 percent of the lodging tax goes to the general fund and it is one of the few sources of revenue that is designated for the general fund that is growing. It has grown almost annually, except for the time we did have the impact from the spill,” McMillan said during House debate.
“The park creates most of the money for all the other parks in this state, so this is going to help the entire state ofAalabama once this gets established and ready to use,” Bentley said.
McMillan outlined the next steps forward once the Governor is able to sign the bill into law.
“There is an eight-step process that protects the public’s interest and also requires that some oversight and accountability from the executive branch,” McMillan said.
“The first thing that would have to happen is a market analysis. If the market analysis comes back favorably, then the governor would put out the requests for proposals. Then based on those requests, the governor has the authority to negotiate what we refer to as a project agreement. Once that’s done, then the Gulf State Park project committee has to review it and approve it before it can be implemented, McMillan said. “So nobody’s got a monopoly on how it’s going to be done without some oversight and approval.”
Despite these plans for oversight and accountability, several called the project a “sweetheart deal” in House debate.
Representative Daniel Boman (D-Sulligent) introduced an amendment on the House floor to prohibit any current or past governor or his family from benefitting from this deal. The bill already included a provision in section 5(c) that “officers and employees of the department, members of the Legislature, and members of their families are excluded from submission of a proposal hereunder.”
“This bill excludes members of the legislative body and officers from benefitting from this, but it did not include members of the executive staff, particularly the Governor,” Boman said.
“Under this bill, the current governor could benefit, and i don’t see that being an issue, but there is a former governor who, i guarantee it when all is said and done with it, he or his family is going to benefit from it, Boman said.”
“It’s been insinuated that Bob Riley is part of it. I can tell you absolutely that there are no negotiations, there have been no discussions, there’s been no interaction, there’s been no phone calls, there’s been no emails, there’s been no letters, there’s been no smoke signals with Bob Riley. So in order for some sort of a deal to take place, someone has to communicate. There’s been none. Zero,” said Blaine Galliher, Governor Bentley’s legislative director.
“This is one of the promises that I made to the people of Baldwin County, Governor Bentley said. “This is a big step in the right direction, and we feel certain that we will be able to get this accomplished,” he said.