Lawmakers still failing to address budget crisis

THE ISSUE: The Alabama Legislature is demonstrating new levels of dysfunction as it deals with a budgetary crisis. The people deserve better.

Gov. Robert Bentley called the Legislature into a July 13 special session on the budget. It was earlier than lawmakers expected, and for good reason. Bentley had just watched the elected representatives of the state fritter away an entire regular session with no progress — none — on the budgetary crisis that will slam the state Oct. 1.

And while he has been part of the problem in the past, Bentley also must have recognized the Legislature has known the crisis was coming for years. And done nothing about it.

He knew lawmakers needed plenty of time to hammer out legislation that would eliminate a shortfall in the General Fund of at least $200 million, but in reality closer to $500 million.

Rather than acknowledging the urgency of the situation, lawmakers responded to the earlier-than-expected special session with indignation.

“I’m just flabbergasted. I just can’t believe it,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said lawmakers were angered by a special session that interfered with their schedules and vacation plans.

So legislators shot Bentley down. They convened the special session July 13, as they were legally required to do, but immediately adjourned until Monday. To keep the move from looking as petty as it was, they gave assurances to their constituents the delay was not about vacations, but about maximizing the chance for a consensus.

When the special session resumed Monday, however, nothing had changed. More than a hundred bills have been filed, many of which are silly ideological efforts to distract both voters and lawmakers from the budget. One of the few tax increases that seemed to have a chance in the regular session — a cigarette tax — was quickly shot down in committee.

The same legislators who fumed during the regular session that they had campaigned on pledges of no tax increases are still saying they won’t support tax increases, and are still failing to offer any realistic options for fiscal 2016. Instead of expanding Medicaid — a move that would generate millions in tax revenue — they are threatening to make cuts in a Medicaid program that already is among the least-funded in the nation. This in a state that has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, and that has among the highest prevalence of preventable health conditions in the nation.

Bentley has proposed an uninspiring list of tax increases that fails to address the fundamental inequality of a tax system that places a far greater burden on the poor and middle class than the wealthy, but at least he’s confronting the budgetary crisis.

A longtime conservative who has cut the state’s budget with little regard for consequences, Bentley has the sense to know there is a point at which cuts erode the state’s ability to function.

Instead of treating him as the enemy, it is time lawmakers wake up to the urgency of the problem.

It turns out Bentley was right to call for a July 13 special session, but lawmakers stalled. He is right to insist on limiting the special session to legislation that addresses the fiscal 2016 budget, but lawmakers are ignoring his call. He is right to point out the impossibility of addressing the budget without new tax revenue, but so far lawmakers are refusing to act.

The people of Alabama deserve better.

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