INSIDE THE STATEHOUSE
By Steve Flowers
Alabama is only one of a handful of states that work out of two budgets. We have a General Fund Budget and a separate Education Budget. Our General Fund is where the severe problem rests. The reason is that the General Fund gets none of the growth taxes so its revenue has remained the same for decades.
The Legislature failed to find a solution during the four month regular legislative session. The new fiscal year begins October 1. Therefore, a summer special session will be necessary.
In the meantime, the Education Budget has passed. It glided through both houses with minimum strife. The almost $6 billion Education Budget increases funding for textbooks by $3 million. It also includes a $10 million increase for the state’s pre-kindergarten program. Colleges and universities are essentially level funded.
The Education Budget does not provide money for teacher pay raises or an increase in funding for their health insurance. This essentially means that teachers will probably see a cut in compensation in the next fiscal year under this Republican budget.
The crisis in the General Fund Budget has been formulating for over a decade. Our current Republican governor and legislature did not create the problems, they inherited them. However, they have done very little to resolve the dilemma.
Instead, they followed the Republican rule book of cutting government and voting no new taxes. Their solution for the past four years has included cutting teacher’s and state worker’s income and benefits. Some folks would say they balanced the budgets on the backs of state workers and teachers.
As the session was winding down, some of the Republican legislators began to come to the realization that they have already cut to the bone and now must do something if Alabama is going to have any semblance of state services.
The House passed a General Fund Budget that most observers and legislators felt was merely a vehicle to drive to see how bad it would sputter down the road. The problem is the jalopy would not even make it to the road because under that proposed budget Alabamians would not have any roads to drive on much less troopers to police them. The jalopy could ramble along potholed state roads without any headlights or taillights and if a local policeman stopped them, the driver could accost the officer without any repercussions because we will not have a functioning court system to try them much less a prison to house them if found guilty.
The Budget passed by the House was referred to very elegantly by House Budget Chairman Steve Clouse (R-Ozark) as a “pig that was hard to put lipstick on.” Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard said that this is not the ultimate budget that will be enacted for the next fiscal year. Hubbard threw in the towel with four legislative days remaining. He said, “I think if we can isolate it during the summer and come back in special session in August is the best scenario.”
This grim reaper budget could be dire for Alabama’s state employees. It is a $1.64 billion budget that cuts about $204 million over the current year’s budget. State workers would not get a pay raise and they would have to pay more for their health insurance. They have not received a cost of living raise in six years and will now see their take home pay cut yet again while their work load continues to increase. The state employee workforce has been reduced by 5,000 people, which is about 15 percent since Republicans took over state government in 2010.
The most dangerous problem with the present budget involves the prison system. Not only would the heralded Prison Reform package not be implemented, the prison population would increase by another 5,400 in our major facilities. This would take the capacity from 200 percent to 226 percent. The federal courts took over California’s prisons at 150 percent which seems to be the top threshold. Sen. Cam Ward, the sponsor of the Prison Reform legislation frustratingly said, “We have just laid a red carpet for a federal takeover of our prison system.”
We will see what a special session will behold.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.