With the problems facing our eroding coastal areas, the people of Louisiana would be rightly upset if money from the legal settlement of the giant BP oil spill in 2010 were to be raided for the general state budget.
However, the state has two pots of money from the litigation against the companies responsible for the drilling disaster. The far smaller settlement is based on economic damages to the state, such as lost state income from taxes. The first $200 million of the some $1 billion settlement is now available to the state; the remainder will be paid out over a period of years, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne told lawmakers.
The bigger part of the BP litigation settlement will provide as much as $6 billion over time for coastal restoration and hurricane protection. This is a big deal, obviously: The state’s master plan envisions spending $50 billion over the coming decades to respond to the physical damages to the coastline and its complex ecosystem.
Louisiana officials, from governors on down, have insisted that the settlement be used for coastal purposes. There has been a bit of a wobble in that from time to time, with the last administration indirectly tapping some coastal dollars, although in relatively small sums. By and large, though, no great harm has been done — yet.
The payments for economic damages have always been thought to be in a different category from those strictly geared to coastal restoration.
In a perfect world, the $200 million would be spent on one-time purposes related to the state’s economic future. Maybe endowing research programs for the coast and the environment at universities, or spending it on other worthy projects that might have been funded had BP not hurt the state’s seafood production and tourist economy, as it did for a time after the 2010 spill, would be appropriate.
Unhappily, the budget world at the State Capitol is far from perfect these days.
The $200 million initial payment will, under the terms of a bill moving through the Legislature, be used to fill this fiscal year’s budget deficit. The bill is part of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ efforts to fill a gaping hole of about $900 million in the current year’s budget.
There are only a few months left before the fiscal year ends on June 30. Cutting the kind of money to correct the imbalance left over by the last administration is essentially impossible and the “noncoastal” BP settlement money is a relatively easy sacrifice.
The Edwards bill sailed without objection through the Senate Finance Committee, and it is likely to be approved.
We understand that the conditions for using this money in a more constructive fashion don’t exist right now. Nor should this constitute a precedent for future raids on dedicated coastal money. However, it’s all too easy for future legislators and administrations to tap coastal money for other purposes. Vigilance on the part of coastal advocates is still called for.