Rather than paying off money they’ve already spent, our politicians always seem to find one reason or another to spend on something else. Six years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Alabama politicians plan to do just that with the state’s $1 billion economic-damages settlement with BP. 

With BP money, we’ve already decided to build a convention center and restore the governor’s beach house. If we’ve gone that far down the restoration priority list, state politicians clearly feel plenty of latitude in spending BP funds for economic harm to the state.

The idea with the most momentum is a constitutional amendment from Sen. Bill Hightower, R-Mobile. The Alabama Strategic Investment Initiative (ASII) pays off $161 million the state borrowed from the Alabama Trust Fund (ATF) in 2010 right off the top. It also funds $260 million in road projects along the coast, $5 million to the Strengthen Alabama Homes Fund and then around $230 million for road projects for the rest of the state.

“Without SB 267, the coast will not receive any funds for the tremendous damage done to the region as a result of the spill,” said Hightower. He sees the BP settlement as shifting money away from the RESTORE Act process that would have more directly benefited coastal communities and into the state settlement, which BP would be able to deduct from its taxes. “This shift took coastal dollars, intended to restore our region, and gave it to Montgomery,” he said. “Justice requires the coast receive proportional recognition from this $1 billion for the damage it experienced.” 

Road projects are powerful legislative currency. The coastal representatives to the Legislature don’t have enough votes to simply spend the BP spill money how they’d like, so the amendment essentially picks up the extra votes by spreading $230 million in blacktop love across legislative districts statewide. 

ASII just misses a little—debt, that is. The measure doesn’t pay back the $422 million remaining from the $437 million the state used to prop up the General Fund in the years after the oil spill.  

Here’s a wild idea: Pay off what you’ve already spent before passing out the goodies.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, suggested just that in an amendment that the Senate defeated by a vote of 23-9.

Legislators are able to point to road projects – constituents drive on them and businesses that access them are appreciative. It’s obvious why they’re useful in swaying votes. Paying off debt is more like a visit to the dentist. It’s good in the long run, but not always fun.

We have a problem with fiscal responsibility — in Washington, in Montgomery and at home. It’s why we have a national debt that’s out of control and a state budgeting process that’s about as shortsighted and reactionary as they come.

“Right now, we need jobs and infrastructure,” says Hightower. He’s right. He would have also been right when we took money from the ATF in 2010 and again in 2012. It’s the same argument presently used to promote the gas-tax increase in Alabama. It was the same argument President Barack Obama used to justify the $831 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 that was widely panned by Republicans.

The amendment also ignores the fact that the Alabama Legislature is simultaneously considering raising the state’s gas tax to generate another $200 million for infrastructure spending. There’s been no mention of the BP settlement spending in the accounting used to justify a gas tax hike. The “conservative” Alabama Legislature might very well propose spending hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure, raise gas taxes to spend a couple of hundred million more and leave more than $400 million in debt untouched. If that’s conservative, then the word has lost its meaning.

Instead, we’re turning the BP settlement into roadkill, paving over it with a tax hike and ignoring the bulk of our indebtedness. Apparently, blacktop really can cover a multitude of political sins.