Lawmakers had years to plan for budget shortfall

THE ISSUE: Alabama legislators are suggesting a special session will be necessary to give them time to find ways to deal with a major shortfall in the General Fund. It’s an embarrassing claim, given the shortfall has been inevitable for years.

With four working days left in the 2015 session, the Legislature still has not done the one thing it is obligated to do under the state constitution: It hasn’t passed a budget.

That’s not to say it’s done nothing. It’s named bridges, commended couples on their anniversaries and basketball teams on their championships. It’s guaranteed religious expression in schools, whittled away at the authority of the state Board of Education, and found novel ways to reduce funding for public schools.

But still no budget.

To be fair, the House passed a budget. But most House members acknowledge it’s a sham, slicing $200 million from agencies that already are underfunded. The Senate has not passed a budget, and may not do so in the regular session.

Leaders in the Legislature say it would be inappropriate to rush things. In one sense, they are right: The consequences of huge cuts would be devastating to the state, but tax increases should not be passed casually.

“Our caucus overwhelmingly believes we need to think this through,” Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said last week.“We can’t just throw things against the wall and see what sticks.”

Had the shortfall in the General Fund been a 2015 surprise, the cautionary language of Hubbard and other legislators would suggest wisdom. Taking time to think through an unexpected problem makes sense, even if that means incurring the expense and uncertainty involved in a special session.

But this was not a surprise.

In fiscal 2010 and 2011, the General Fund received windfalls from the federal government, in the form of stimulus funds. In fiscal 2012, the General Fund enjoyed a one-time $266 million windfall as a result of past overpayments of oil and gas royalties to the Alabama Trust Fund.

With no other windfalls in sight, the lawmakers in 2012 convinced voters to allow the General Fund to borrow $435 million, payable in fiscals 2013, 2014 and 2015.

The fiscal 2016 budget shortfall is anything but a surprise. It has been inevitable since at least fiscal 2010, when the Legislature began relying on one-time windfalls to delay needed tax reform.

Lawmakers have for six years avoided facing the state’s fiscal reality, but now say they need a special session to give them more time to find solutions. That’s embarrassing.

(Published May 31, 2015)


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