By House Minority Leader, Rep. Craig Ford
Alabama is definitely facing some major problems with our state budgets, and it’s time for state leaders to take these problems seriously and find real solutions. But combining the two budgets is not a real solution.
Our state leaders need to realize that simply taking money from one pile and moving it to another is not a good idea. Combining the budgets, or any other back door way to take money earmarked for our children’s education and fund other state programs, should be off the table. That is why I firmly believe it is time for Gov. Bentley and state legislators to sign a pledge promising they will not take money out of the Education Trust Fund to pay for services provided by the General Fund.
I will gladly sign this pledge, and I hope Gov. Bentley and others will as well. As state leaders, we need to promise that not one cent will be taken from the Education Trust Fund.
I know there has recently been some confusion over what exactly the Education Trust Fund is compared to the General Fund and why it might be dangerous to combine them. The Education Trust Fund exclusively funds all public education needs: from pre-k to higher education. It is the only major source of state funding for public education. Of course, the University of Alabama and Auburn University get monies from alumni donors and other sources, but, as institutions of public education, both receive a large portion of money to operate from the state. The General Fund is money that the state uses to pay for everything else, like the prison system and other government agencies and departments.
By taking money from the education budget to help fill in gaps with the general fund budget we are taking money from students of all ages. Essentially, we are robbing our children, be they 4 or 24, to help pay for things like prisons. While we have to fund our prisons, that funding should not come at the expense of our children’s quality of education.
State leaders have said it’s time to make some bold changes, and that all options are on the table. I say we should take a bold stand not to balance the budget on the backs of our children. Taking money from the Education Trust Fund should not be an option on the table. School dollars should go to schools. General fund dollars should go to the general fund programs.
Luckily, there are solutions to the General Fund budget’s problems. For example, entering into an agreement with the Poarch Creek Indians would allow us to generate millions of dollars for the General Fund without taking one cent from our schools. It’s very simple: in exchange for allowing the Indian gaming interests to expand their facilities, they would, in turn, pay a significant portion of their profits to the state in lieu of taxes (which they do not currently pay). In addition, this would help create new jobs and generate more tourism to our state.
Another solution, which I have always strongly supported, is the creation of a state lottery. By creating a lottery, we would be able to put money back into our schools instead of taking it out. As with the Indian gaming interests’ money, a state lottery wouldn’t be taking any money from earmarked places and shifting it around. Instead, a state lottery would create new revenue. And that is revenue Alabamians are already paying as they drive to other states to play the lottery instead of paying to play it here.
Taking money from our schools should never be on the table when trying to balance the state’s books. And I’m afraid what state leaders mean when they say “bold changes” is really just another way of saying “we’re about to do something we know the taxpayers aren’t going to like.” And as we saw with the Accountability Act, robbing our schools may be bold, but it certainly isn’t a change.
It’s time to be serious about solving our budget problems without raiding our schools’ budgets. I ask the governor and other state leaders to stand with me and make a promise to the people of Alabama that we will protect the Education Trust Fund and our children’s education. I’ll sign that pledge, and I hope I won’t be alone.
Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.