Tag Archives: Alabama budget

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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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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