Governor Bentley has unexpectedly called lawmakers back to Montgomery to begin a special session on Monday that will focus on the state’s budget for fiscal year 2016. While the special session has been in the works since the legislature adjourned in June, it was the legislators’ understanding that they would not be returning until August. An email from Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) to his fellow legislators makes it clear that they intended to arrive on Monday and immediately adjourn until August 3.
Part of the budget discussion will involve a settlement between BP and the state of Alabama. Last week, the Gulf States announced an “agreement in principle” with BP that would settle all federal and state claims agains the company related to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill for a total of $18.7 billion. While some of the particulars of this settlement are still confidential until the court has officially approved it, questions have emerged about how much money is actually coming to the Gulf Coast and how it will be spent.
The Environmental Law Institute has built a graphic to explain how the money will flow from BP to the Gulf States and the federal funding mechanisms:
In their press conference on July 2, Governor Bentley and State Attorney General Luther Strange announced that Alabama would be dividing its settlement between the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council (AGCRC) and the state’s General Fund. Bentley said that $1 billion will be paid to the General Fund over the course of 18 years, while the AGCRC will receive $1.3 billion to focus on coastal restoration.
In the wake of the settlement announcement, U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope) raised questions about the actual amount of money that the AGCRC will get. Rep. Byrne’s office calculated that a portion of the $1.3 billion allocated to the AGCRC has actually already been paid out or earmarked, reducing the settlement amount set aside for coastal restoration to $308 million. The governor’s office has said that until the court has approved the settlement, Byrne’s questions cannot be addressed.
Despite the uncertainties related to this settlement, Conservation Alabama and our partners on the coast remain committed to making sure this influx of funds is spent on projects that have a long-term impact on the health and resilience of our coastal environment and the communities it supports.
On Thursday morning, press conferences were held across the Gulf Coast to announce a $18.5 billion settlement with BP. Once this settlement is approved by the court, it will put an end to the legal proceedings between BP and the states to quantify the damage caused to the Gulf Coast as a result of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, as well as BP’s liability for that damage.
Alabama will receive a total of $2.3 billion from the settlement over the course of 18 years, which will be split between the state’s General Fund and the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council (AGCRC). $1 billion will be paid to the General Fund to assist with what the governor is calling “economic recovery,” while the AGCRC will receive $1.3 billion to fund coastal restoration projects.
Governor Bentley stressed that even though the General Fund will be seeing an influx of cash, we do not know when to expect the payments from BP, and this money is “not a solution” to the state’s budget crisis. Legislators will still return to Montgomery later this summer for a special legislative session to draft a 2016 budget. We believe that the $1 billion being allocated to the General Fund should be used to fund line items directly related to Alabama’s natural resources, including state parks and public lands and the Department of Environmental Management. Our state parks are facing devastating budget cuts, and closing these parks would be disastrous for the communities that rely on them as economic drivers.
Since the money has been divided between the General Fund and the AGCRC, it is crucial that the funding the AGCRC receives is spent only on environmental restoration projects. We all know that Alabama’s natural resources are the foundation of its economy, and spending this money on anything but making sure those resources are healthy and resilient is short-sighted.
If spent correctly, the settlement money will make large-scale, long-lasting improvements in our state. Conservation Alabama is committed to making sure that the legacy of this settlement is a healthier, stronger, more vibrant Alabama.