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Riley to prove state is spending unwisely

By By Kim Price
Alexander City Outlook
Before Gov. Bob Riley can ask Alabamians to approve tax increases to shore up pending revenue shortfalls, he must prove to voters that the state is spending their money wisely – he calls it being efficient, effective and accountable.
Meeting with an editorial board from Boone Newspapers Thursday, Riley laid out his plans for the next four months. It includes an aggressive plan to implement cost-cutting and cost savings in state government, mostly dealing with wasteful and unnecessary spending.
Riley said the state could face a $500 million shortfall in the 2004 fiscal year if something is not done, and that includes cuts and new revenue. Riley said he must shore up cost-savings to determine how much can be saved, an amount he hopes will be at least $150 million. Cuts must be made to make state spending more efficient.
For example, Riley noted most taxpayers do not realize that taxpayers provide automobiles for the state's pilots.
"Why do we provide cars to our pilots when their actual job is in the air?" Riley quipped. "This is the type of thing that is everywhere."
When asked why he had a state car, one pilot reportedly told Riley, "Because they gave it to me."
Riley responded and asked State Finance Director Drayton Nabers this week to set an example and turn in his state vehicle and then revoke the state cars currently assigned to all state employees.
"What's so incredible is that we don't even know how many we have out there," Riley said. "The only way to find out was to call them in."
The cars will be returned to some employees after the agencies submit justifications to the Finance Department and receive approval.
State spending increased almost $9 million, or to a total of $20 million in 2002, compared to $11.4 million in 1999.
"The cost of purchasing and operating state automobiles has risen at an alarming rate over the last four years," Nabers said at a press conference to announce the governor's decision. "It is imperative that we get these costs under control and ensure that state cars are being used as efficiently as possible and only for official government business."
Driving to work, he noted, is not considered official government business. Nabers said cutting out the luxuries could save the state an immediate $5 million on purchases and reduce operating costs by $2 million. The cost of operating state cars went from $13.5 million in 1999 to more than $20 million in 2002. Not only did spending grow the last four years, the program has continued to grow since the early 90's.
Nabers said each state agency is required by April 1 to submit to the Finance Department an inventory of all automobiles owned or leased by the state, along with a "Vehicle Assignment Request Form" for each automobile they plan to assign to individuals. The ultimate decision on who will get a car will depend on Nabers' assessment of its use.
Nabers said the state will be monitoring unauthorized or improper use of a state car and doing so will be grounds for dismissal or suspension, and he said all state cars must have a state government license plate except for law enforcement vehicles specifically exempted.
Nabers also said the state will quit buying Crown Victoria luxury cars and move to smaller, more efficient vehicles. Riley calls it "getting things right."
The governor told Alabamians during his state of the state address that revenue shortfalls could cause drastic cuts in state government, including the loss of 3,000 teachers and some 45 state troopers.
While the governor said that is not the desire of his administration, people need to know how serious the situation really is. "People think for the most part that it will just get fixed. Well, it's a lot worse than that. We've got to convince them how serious this is."
This newspaper and others in the Boone Newspaper group will begin a series of stories in coming days on Riley's plan to cut waste, reform the state's Constitution and find new sources of revenue. There will also be a look into his plan to rebuild the economically-depressed Black Belt.
Kim N. Price is publisher of The Outlook. He can be reached at 256-234-4281, ext. 27. His e-mail address is kim.price@alexcityoutlook.com.