By John Hall
MONTGOMERY – Alabama officials are trying to take money from our children.
Earlier this month, Gov. Robert Bentley, his finance director and his allies in the state Senate began their attempt to balance the General Fund budget by raiding the Children First Trust Fund, something that no governor or legislator of either party has tried to do since this trust fund was established more than a decade ago.
In 1998, Alabama’s children, especially those needing our help, were finally recognized and protected when the Children First Trust Fund was established for them by a bipartisan vote of the Legislature. Each year, funds are appropriated to 12 state agencies that use the money to meet our children’s most critical unmet needs.
This historic law explicitly states that “there is established a special fund in the State Treasury to be known as the Children First Trust Fund.” For 13 years, this has indeed been “a special fund.”
Unless this unprecedented effort against Children First is stopped in the House in the coming weeks, another trust fund will be raided.
Why protect money for the critical needs of children? There are plenty of reasons.
Children cannot vote or speak for themselves. They often do not know what they need. Helping them now saves millions of dollars in spending in the future. But, mainly, helping children is the right thing to do.
Yet, unless this unprecedented effort against Children First is stopped in the House in the coming weeks, another trust fund will be raided – this time one for children. Once the trust fund is raided the first time, it will be easier and easier for the trust to be broken by the governor and his Senate allies again – putting the Children First Trust Fund’s survival in great peril.
Why is this happening? Gov. Bentley and his allies have had this problem before. They have pledged never to raise revenues, even if they cannot pay for the programs and policies that they include in their budget.
Two years ago, the budget was balanced largely through the governor’s use of President Barack Obama’s stimulus package. Our current budget was not balanced, at all until the governor took money from the Alabama Trust Fund through the passage of Amendment One. This year, again, the governor and Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, cannot balance the budget without taking the money from another source. They have decided that source should be children. After all, children are not taxpayers and they cannot vote.
The statute establishing the Children’s First Trust Fund specified that it would be funded by 46 percent of any proceeds coming to Alabama as a result of the national tobacco settlement. The trust fund has a detailed accounting system which shows how the funds are used and the outcomes obtained. No other fund in Alabama is as transparent or accountable. All information can be found on the Department of Children’s Affairs website.
This year, the trust fund is expected to receive two payments from the tobacco companies. One is the normal payment made each year. The other is tobacco settlement money that has been held back from the fund for six years as a result of a dispute between the state and the tobacco companies. By law, the Children First Trust Fund’s share of this settlement money is estimated to be $22 million. Had there not been a legal dispute with the tobacco companies, these dollars would have also come to the trust fund in smaller amounts each year.
The Children First Foundation, a nonprofit organization made up of a bipartisan group of experts from varied areas of children’s needs, has worked diligently as advocates for children and the Children First Trust Fund. The foundation, in 17 years of existence, has not received one dollar from the state. It has two employees paid for through raising money from companies and individuals who appreciate the need for our children to be represented and helped.
Some of our supporters include companies such as Alabama Power Co. and Blue Cross-Blue Shield, notable foundations like Nick Saban’s Nick’s Kids and individuals like Joe Namath and Bo Jackson. Only two and a half years ago, Dr. Robert Bentley generously donated $2,500 to our foundation.
Furthermore, until about two years ago, Gov. Bentley’s finance director, whose job includes making up the state budget, was a member of the Children First board of directors. When she resigned from our board, she wrote us saying, “I will always support the work of the Foundation . . .,” ending with a quote on which we can all agree: “If you want to make a difference, change the life of a child.”
Two bills were prepared to raid the trust fund. SB 287 actually attempts to change Alabama law to enable the governor to take $22 million from the children to help balance next year’s budget.
The other bill, SB 288, is equally disturbing. In SB 288, Orr is attempting to raid the trust fund in order take $3 million so that he and other Republican senators can send this political “pork” back to their districts. Regardless of how the funds are used, they are, by law, protected for our children.
It would appear that those who would try to attack the Children First Trust Fund and take its money tried to do it in a way so as to minimize exposure and limit efforts to debate their plan.
As the Legislature convened on March 6, child advocates learned that both bills were introduced either very late in the day before or that night before and assigned to a 9:30 a.m. committee hearing chaired by Orr. With unusual speed, both bills were approved by the committee and set for a vote on the earliest possible day, leaving opponents little time to respond. With debate limited by Senate leadership, the bills were passed by the Senate on March 12.
If these actions are allowed to stand by the House in the weeks to come, the tobacco money put in trust for our children will be greatly reduced this year and be in great peril in the future.
Please email your representatives and tell them that raiding another trust fund — this time, a trust fund for Alabama children — is not the answer to the state’s budget woes. There information can be found at: http://www.legislature.state.al.us/.
John Hall, a Birmingham lawyer, is president of the Children First Foundation. Email: [email protected]
Children First Foundation is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to improving the lives of Alabama’s children and families by shaping public policy. The Foundation was formed because our states’ leaders and child advocates saw a need to advocate for children in the halls of Alabama’s legislature. For more information, please visit www.alabamachildrenfirst.com