Unified budget would give fox control of henhouse

THE ISSUE: If Alabama had an ideal Legislature, merging the Education Trust Fund and the General Fund would make sense. The Legislature is not ideal, however, and constitutionally imposed earmarks​ are​ essential.

A bill to merge the state’s Education Trust Fund and its General Fund makes perfect sense — in isolation.

Viewed in light of legislative actions during the past several years, however, it is frightening.

Never particularly trusting of their elected leaders, Alabamians frequently have placed restrictions on the money they agree to pay in taxes. Numerous constitutional amendments authorizing taxes also specify how the resulting revenue should be spent.

These restrictions necessarily create inefficiencies. Some governmental agencies may receive more revenue than they need, and others less. The earmarks prevent the Legislature from balancing between competing priorities. Is it more important to hire more teachers or to provide more services for the mentally ill? Is it more important to increase funding for textbooks or to relieve crowding in prisons? The answer to these questions may vary from year to year.

An ideal Legislature could be entrusted with such decisions, and could better serve the people if it were working from a unified budget. It makes little sense for an ideal Legislature to be constrained in 2015 by constitutional earmarks passed in 1936 and 1947 limiting the bulk of sales and income taxes to educational purposes.

Sadly, this is where reality intrudes. It turns out Alabama is not blessed with an ideal Legislature.

During the past four years, some of the Legislature’s most startling deficiencies have been in its treatment of the state’s public schools.

For starters, the Legislature routinely has ignored the constitutional restrictions that limit some taxes to the Education Trust Fund. The Legislature has directed $50 million a year in ETF funds to the Commerce Department. Another $650,000 goes to the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Alabama Civil Air Patrol gets $75,000 a year in ETF money. The National Computer Forensic Institute and the Alabama Supreme Court Library each get $250,000.

Even Gov. Robert Bentley, who has not been shy about raiding the ETF, figures $187 million a year is siphoned from the fund for purposes unrelated to education.

What does this tell Alabamians? That the Legislature is so determined to reduce funding for public schools that it will do so even when that means ignoring the state constitution. Imagine the result if the General Fund and Education Trust Fund are unified, giving the Legislature unfettered access to funds now used for schools.

And the funding issues barely scratch the surface of the hostility the Legislature has shown toward the state’s public schools.

The same constitution that restricts some tax revenue to the ETF also creates an elected state Board of Education charged with “general supervision of the public schools in Alabama.”

With alarming regularity, however, legislators without expertise in education have looked to supervise public schools. They have created a charter school system, drained public-school funding to finance private schools, imposed curriculum requirements and loaded unfunded mandates on local schools.

Now, indeed, some are threatening to disband the elected Board of Education — a board created by the same constitution that created the Legislature.

They resent the board’s authority over Alabama’s education system, and the fact that a state agency answers to elected officials who are not in the Legislature.

If Alabama had an ideal Legislature — one that understood the limits of its expertise and that recognized the importance of public schools to the state’s success — a unified budget would make sense.

Instead, Alabama has a Legislature that is consistently hostile to education. The people were prescient in 1936 and 1947 when they earmarked taxes for educational purposes. They knew that giving the Legislature complete discretion over education funding would be akin to giving the fox the job of guarding the henhouse.

(Published May 27, 2015)

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Filed under Alabama politics, education

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