Siegelman blasts legislature as his plan stalls
Siegelman raises taxes while Bush cuts them
As we enter the second week of the special session of the legislature, it is becoming more obvious by the day that Gov. Don Siegelman's proposal to saddle businesses with huge tax increases is not getting off the ground. His proposals failed to even get a vote in the House Ways and Means Committee last week, which is a sure sign that his plan is not the remedy for the shortfall in the education budget.
And speaking of the education budget, the governor and the news media have failed to provide the "big picture" to the public on the overall condition of the education budget. Lacking in the debate is the fact that education spending in Alabama has grown significantly over the last decade. Instead, they focus on the lack of growth in the last two years.
The state will spend approximately $4 billion on public education this year, even if the budget is cut by $160 million as the governor has suggested would happen if we don't increase taxes. Just 10 years ago the state was spending $2.5 billion on public education. Simple arithmetic shows that we are spending $1.5 billion more on public education than we were in 1991. That is a 60 percent increase, which is significant by any measure.
The governor and the news media talk about cutting $266 million in education spending last year and another $160 million this year. But what must be understood is that this is a cut in what the governor asked the legislature to budget, not in what we were spending. If no new revenue is raised this year for education we will end up spending approximately the same amount on education this year as last year.
Having said that, I am a strong proponent of putting more money in the classrooms to teach our children. There are several proposals in the legislature to accomplish this without increasing the tax burden on the working people of our state and I believe that reasonable people working together will resolve this problem.
Gov. Siegelman, however, became highly irritated at legislators last week when his new tax proposals failed to be considered by the House Ways and Means Committee, which is controlled by members of his own Democrat party. He took to the road and began blasting legislators on the committee for not supporting his tax plan.
Unfortunately, the governor is using the education funding issue as a political issue to win favor with the supporters of K-12 and higher education. He was severely criticized last year by both groups for cutting the education budget. He says that legislators are either for his tax plan and for children or against his tax plan and against children.
Many legislators in his own party have asked him to tone down his rhetoric and work with them to come up with a solution. The Democrat Speaker of the House of Representatives, Seth Hammett, said of Siegelman's heated comments, "We need to be talking to each other and not about each other."
To his credit, Speaker Hammett has formed a bipartisan group from the House and Senate to try to work out a plan that would offset the decline in new money coming into the education budget. It is this kind of reason and compromise that will result in solutions to our funding problems.
In contrast to the Speaker, Siegelman said last week that if he doesn't get the vote he wants on his tax package, he will call another special session during Christmas. He said in a speech in Mobile last week, "They (legislators) can spend their Christmas in Montgomery with me fighting over this issue." The divisive tone of Siegelman's remarks are likely to hurt the very people he claims to want to help n the children.
Speaker Hammett and members of the legislature are not the only ones trying to ease the pain of less money coming into the state education budget. State Superintendent of Education Ed Richardson outlined his proposals last week, which included closing small schools — those with fewer than 264 students — and eliminating extracurricular activities that don't pay their own way such as sports and bands.
So far, there hasn't been much public support for doing away with school sports and bands. He has, however, hit on subject that needs to be addressed n today's school structure. If some small schools, within a close proximity of a larger school, can be merged without sacrificing the quality of education, then we should seriously consider this option. We have to think outside of the box to solve today's problems. We just can't continue to do things the way we have always done them and expect to progress.
Working together we can build a great education system in Alabama. We need to put aside.
Bill Armistead is Alabama State Senator for District 14.