Legislature preps for budgets approval

Published 9:35 pm Wednesday, March 21, 2007

By By Steve Flowers
As we begin the 2007 Regular Session of the Legislature the perennial issues, such as the need for a new Constitution, campaign reform, and prison overcrowding, may rise to the surface. Usually if any tough issue is addressed it is tackled in the first year of the quadrennium. These issues have been swept under the rug continuously for years and may never be handled until a major crisis erupts.
However, one constant is that the budgets have to be passed. Many of you are surprised when the term budgets plural with an "s" is used rather than budget. For you see in Alabama we have two major budgets. The Special Education Trust Fund Budget is for Education only and our General Fund Budget is the source of funding for all other functions of state government.
Our ship of state can be compared to the Charles Dickens classic, "A Tale of Two Cities" because it is the best of times and it is the worst of times. There is such disparity between the states of the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund that this analogy would be appropriate. An even more accurate literary analogy might yet be illustrated by the nursery rhyme Jack Spratt could eat not fat and his wife could eat no lean. Due to the earmarking of tax dollars in Alabama, the Education Fund is flush or fat while the General Fund is broke and lean.
When I went to the Legislature in 1982 these budgets were about equal in the amount of funds available. When I left in 1998 the Education Fund had grown to be three times larger than the General Fund. The reason for this contrast is that most of the growth taxes, such as income and sales taxes, are earmarked for education. Therefore, as the economy grows so does the Education Fund.
It has been 20 years since any new revenues were injected into the General Fund. How many families could survive on the same budget that was available 20 years ago? The State's cost for buildings, electricity, desks, chairs, cars, and gas have gone up the same as it has for everyone else. In addition, health insurance has gone up dramatically to say the least.
During my legislative tenure I would see this saga of feast and famine played out repeatedly. Year after year a scenario would occur where a constituent, who was a State Highway Department employee, would call me and ask why his wife, a school teacher, received a raise while he did not. I would have to explain the two state budgets and their tragic diversity. The same story is occurring this year. Both teachers and state employees are seeking 7 percent pay raises. The money is there for teachers. It will be a long stretch for the State General Fund worker.
In addition there are crisis needs erupting that must be addressed. The critical problem of prison overcrowding cannot be ignored much longer. The need for new state troopers is critical. Our state highways are in horrible disrepair and the Medicaid and Mental Health departments are in disarray. Medicaid is facing a long-term dilemma with the baby boom generation approaching retirement age.
Gov. Riley and his cabinet of top level businessmen have done an excellent job of cutting corners and keeping the state afloat. However, you can only rob Peter to pay Paul so many times. Eventually the cows will come home to roost.
One day the State General Fund will get a windfall reprieve when the huge Exxon verdict is resolved. If only a part of the $3.6 billion judgment is upheld the State will be saved for a year or two.
In the meantime, hopefully the Legislature and Governor will work together to solve the dilemma of funding our General Fund for all functions of state government. It would also be wise to continue to fund a rainy day or surplus fund for education because of the fluctuations of revenues that fund the Education Budget. It would also be a frugal sign of good stewardship of tax dollars to base the budgets on the current year's income rather than a projection. This would alleviate proration.
It will be an interesting session, especially with the continuous wrangling in the State Senate.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama's leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the State Legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us <http://www.steveflowers.us/>

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