BP Suit Dangles New-But-Familiar Windfall Carrot Before States
February 27, 2013 by Ben Bullard
The long-simmering civil suit to assay the extent of British Petroleum’s negligence leading up to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Gulf Coast disaster began Monday.
But whether the case ever makes it through a trial — or ends up in a settlement — is almost irrelevant for the States certain to get a payout.
Think about it: There is almost no chance that Alabama and Louisiana — the two States formally attached to the suit — as well as Florida, Mississippi, Texas and the U.S. Department of Justice won’t see BP money before it’s all over. And it will probably be a lot of money, especially for the three less-populous tax base States between Florida and Texas.
Those States’ poorer general fund and education budgets get a little tingly when they smell free money. And the custodians of public funds, regardless of their day-to-day fiscal rhetoric, get positively giddy.
The belt-tightening lip service State leaders pay to the handling of public funds has a reliable tendency to dissipate utterly when the opportunity to aggrandize public coffers at the expense of the private sector appears.
Want examples? Just Google “State general fund windfalls” and order a pizza.
Lotteries, lawsuits, revenue-raising referenda, “found” money, tax projections that turn out to have been pessimistic: all these, and more, provide States — not only in the South, but across the Fruited Plain — the year-by-year deus ex machina their Governors and legislatures need to keep constituents grateful for the last-minute budgets they manage to pass.
Now there’s talk of a settlement in the Deepwater case. Leaving aside BP’s culpability (or its absence) in the ordeal, you can bet State heads in the South are imploring their attorneys general to go for the surest play. In all likelihood, that’s a settlement of the civil lawsuit.
The boilerplate fiscal values of Governors, legislators, cabinet appointees and public service commissions — ultimately, of any State-level official who inherits his little slice of the labyrinthine and pervasive administrative structure supported by each State’s general fund — are ephemeral when the prospect of a quick score rears its head. Due process — yes, even for an international megacorporation loathed both by environmentalists and people who put gas in their cars — doesn’t get a lot of spotlight from State Houses.
State leaders send a message to their citizen bosses and benefactors when they spend the months before a tough legislative session talking about steep budget cuts, reductions in staffing for courts, law enforcement, state-run mental hospitals and pretty much everything else. (Roads and teachers are sacred cows of the political cycle and are usually safe from devastating harm.)
The South’s elected fiscal conservatives, such as they are, reached office in part on the strength of tough talk about bloated government, redundancies in State services, welfare-state public employees (except for teachers!) and getting back to the business of carrying out no more and no less than the tasks of office as ordained in each State’s constitution.
When those same leaders ramp up the rhetoric for each year’s budget fight, the talk is always about tough decisions, too many “needs” and not enough dollars, and how proud they are that the people who elected them share their austere approach to fiscal policy and will “please bear with us” as they feebly shore up — but never, ever eliminate — all the big-government programs, entitlements and agencies they were elected to trim or to end outright.
When Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas get their BP dole, you can expect it to be absorbed into their State budgets to the maximum extent the settlement agreement will allow. There will be earmarks for environmental reparation, as well as other qualifiers regarding where a portion of the money goes, but every discretionary cent likely will be padded in to each State’s business-as-usual operating budget next year.
With few exceptions, State programs don’t die. Their near-miss budgeting survival, year in and year out, leaves the public with the vague impression that they’re absolutely crucial and, probably, mandated by that State’s Constitution or the Constitution of the United States.
For politicians of any stripe holding the public purse strings, that’s a pleasant lie. Along with State taxes and fees that either stay level or increase, erratic windfall money keeps State leaders everywhere addicted to the superfluity of big government.