INSIDE THE STATEHOUSE
By Steve Flowers
The week leading up to the Fourth of July had a lot of fireworks. In fact, my guess is that when we look back at the year 2015, we will look to that week as the most momentous of the year. It was like bang, bang, bang.
The declaration by the Supreme Court that same sex marriage is the law of the land may be one of the most monumental court decisions in decades and unquestionably the landmark ruling by the high tribunal this year.
The same week we saw a settlement of the BP case. It was expected and predicted that this verdict would not come down until late 2016 or early 2017. It will be a boon to Alabama’s General Fund, but not a panacea.
Also, the same week Gov. Robert Bentley took down all the confederate flags around the Capitol. This decision may not play well with some arch conservatives around the state, but they cannot retaliate against Bentley. He cannot run again anyway. He did it because he thought it was in the best interest of the state. Gov. Bentley said removing four confederate flags from around the Capitol was “the right thing to do.” He continued, “It’s important that we present an image in Alabama that things are different today than they were in 1963.”
Bentley, who has hung his hat on luring new industry into the state during his time as governor believed that the confederate flag issue could be a determent to potential industrial recruitment. He said he wanted to head off controversy about the flags that might distract from our image and put us in an unfavorable light with corporations around the nation or globe.
Hours after the flags came down, Bentley announced that Google plans to convert an old coal burning power plant in rural Jackson County near Huntsville into a $600 million data center. Ironically, Bentley’s decisive move to remove the flags may be looked on in future years as one of his legacies as governor.
The BP settlement the week of the Fourth of July will go down as a legacy for Alabama. We will reap $55 million a year into our General Fund over the next 18 years. The total settlement will be $2.3 billion for our state. About $1.3 billion will go to environmental restoration along Alabama’s coastal area and $1 billion will go to the state for economic damages.
Although most of the economic loss came in the area of income and sales taxes that would generally go to the Education Trust Fund, legislators have passed legislation to earmark the money to the General Fund. The $1 billion will be paid out over 18 years, which will come to about $55 million per year.
It has been five years since the explosion at an off shore well and subsequent oil spill that killed 11 men and devastated the economy of the Gulf Coast. Alabama was one of five states affected by the BP tragedy. A total settlement of $18.7 billion will be paid out to all of the five states.
Attorney General Luther Strange did a yeoman’s job on the settlement. He headed the entire legal legwork. By foregoing outside legal counsel, he saved the state millions. Other states, like Louisiana, spent over $10 million on outside counsel. The presiding judge, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, early on made Strange the lead counsel on the case.
Attorney General Strange and Gov. Bentley held a joint press conference announcing the historic settlement. Strange said, “I think Alabama has received the very best settlement possible. I think it will benefit future generations of Alabamians.” Gov. Bentley said emphatically and repeatedly that the BP settlement will not solve Alabama’s General Fund shortfall. “This will not solve the problem,” Bentley said, “Does it help some? Yes, absolutely.” When asked if the new money might give lawmakers the excuse to avoid raising taxes or seeking solutions, Bentley said it should not. He emphasized that the BP windfall is not the golden parachute that legislators are hoping for.
“There is a $400 million gap in the General Fund so $55 million would only be 12 percent of that amount and it may not even start this year,” Bentley said. He continued, “I’m always afraid that anyone can make the excuse to take some one time money given in one-time fashion and not solve the real problems of our state.”
A Special Session was called last week even with the BP windfall.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.