09/29/2010 06:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Invest $10 Billion in Gulf Recovery, Development Fund

If you listen to the rhetoric and political grandstanding surrounding the Gulf oil disaster and ongoing cleanup, much of the talk is about people getting their lives back to normal -- to how things were.

But is this really the right focus? Just look at how things have been.

For generations, people in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle have been among the poorest and hungriest of Americans. A recent KidsCount ranking showed the three worst places for kids to grow up in America to be Alabama (48th), Louisiana (49th) and Mississippi (50th). Per capita incomes and educational systems consistently rank at the bottom. Poverty rates are high. The business climate, mired in yesterday, often defies innovation and defeats opportunity.

Returning the Gulf states to what they were would be like fixing a clunker. It would run for a few more days, but it wouldn't be too long before it broke down again. Do we really want the people of these states to go back to a future of economic and educational struggle?

We can do better. As we rebuild the region, we need to make bold strategic investments to ensure the region and its people have more of the same opportunities most Americans now enjoy.

Instead of investing to remain poor, let's help the Gulf states so they can leapfrog into a modern economy, a knowledge economy, that is far different from a region stalled by decades of neglect. We must preserve the Gulf's cultural heritage. But we are obligated to create better opportunities for today's students so they'll remain in their native states to become tomorrow's leaders.

While British Petroleum has targeted $20 billion for environmental recovery efforts now, the federal government should establish a $10 billion Gulf Development and Recovery Trust fund dedicated to long-term projects that will have major systemic impacts to education, health and the economy in the Gulf states. The fund also could be used to pay for unexpected future health, environmental and other spill-related problems that will inevitably arise through the years.

Initial seed money for this new fund should be an additional $5 billion from BP. But because there is the potential for future disasters, other companies that drill in the Gulf should pay into the fund to mitigate tomorrow's threats. Since these companies draw their wealth from the natural resources of the Gulf, they have a social responsibility to help meet the needs of the people who live in the region. A sustaining stream of revenue for the trust could come from an increased percentage of royalties already paid by companies for leases.

Among the kinds of projects that should be considered by a Gulf Development and Recovery Trust:

  • Significant investment in environmental and health research at Gulf coast colleges and universities to create a higher-education cluster that will spin off thousands of private-sector jobs.
  • Creation of a free wireless Internet access zone from Pensacola to New Orleans to spur development of small businesses with an electronic backbone and allow students to tap into countless educational opportunities.
  • Provide free educational laptops to tens of thousands of elementary students to prime the economic pump of the future to create a smarter work force and provide new opportunities to hundreds of thousands of Southerners.

Unlimited amounts of money shouldn't be scattered unwisely throughout the Gulf states. Unlike governments that disgorge funds annually through budget processes, a trust fund managed by committed leaders can pick and choose valuable opportunities and invest only when there is reasonable certainty that goals can be met.

Whatever the funding mechanism, the federal government, working in coordination with the Gulf states and local organizations, needs to adopt a long-term vision and strategy that will allow people from Buras, La., to Navarre Beach, Fla., to be better off than they were - not just the same old kind of poor.

NOTE: Earlier this month, the Center for a Better South released "Ideas for a Better Gulf" to spark discussion on ways to move the region forward.