Showing a reckless disregard for the needs of his state’s people in favor of corporate bosses and his own fancy, Alabama’s Republican governor Robert Bentley is renovating an abandoned 7,500 square-foot governor’s mansion with money left over from 2010 BP oil spill settlement. An estimated $1.5 to $1.8 million of grants from the settlement in the Deepwater Horizon spill will be used to cover the costs of refurbishment. Such a blatant pillaging of funds intended to serve the public good for extravagant private use is downright shameful, especially given that the local communities, industry, and environment along Alabama’s Gulf Coast continue to suffer the effects of the enormous oil spill.
The mansion in question, located on the beachfront in Gulf Shores, AL, was built in the era of famed racist governor George Wallace, and served as a secondary governor’s residence until it was damaged by Hurricane Danny in 1997 and subsequently abandoned. Bentley has claimed that his decision to renovate the property has nothing to do with the fact that he recently lost two nearby beachfront properties in a messy divorce. That divorce was the result of widely credible rumors of an affair between Bentley – who hypocritically couches his opposition to abortion and gay marriage as a belief in “family values” – and one of his staffers.
Bentley says that he will stay at the new mansion only “on occasion,” and that it will instead “primarily” be used to host and woo corporate executives considering the state for investment. It is a cruel irony that as corporate profits continue to take precedence over the fate of human lives and of our planet when it comes to energy development, some of this “investment” will no doubt include new offshore drilling opportunities like the Deepwater Horizon, which was touted as bringing much-needed investment to nearby Louisiana. In any case, the fact that almost two million dollars of funds meant to serve the people of Alabama affected by corporate negligence are instead going to fund more trickle-down extravagance for the elite has justifiably aroused the ire of many Alabamians, especially as it comes on the heels of the state’s dubious decision in 2013 to use BP settlement money meant for environmental cleanup to build an $85 million hotel and conference center on a state beach property.
For example, in October, the state shut down 30 DMV offices, all in rural majority-black areas, and after an enormous backlash agreed to keep them open only one day per year. The NAACP is suing the state for the closures – which were rationalized by Bentley as a response to the budget crisis – arguing that they serve to suppress the votes of blacks by limiting access to state-issued voter ID cards that are necessary to vote in the state following last year’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act. In another move this year, some 15 Alabama state parks are facing closure due to the budget crisis, and lawmakers are considering serious cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and other social services to shore up Montgomery’s finances. It is a brutally and tragically clear example of who politics really serves in America that the state, which is home to some of the worst rural poverty in the nation, would rather use public grant money to refurbish a governor’s private plaything and serve corporate bosses than provide basic services for its most needy residents.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.