By Jim Carnes
What makes a state strong?
Answers to that question will vary, but healthy people, a dependable workforce, a stable government, safe streets and vibrant communities come to mind. Putting aside my own list for a moment, I wonder what would happen if our lawmakers used such a measuring stick for managing Alabama’s finances.
As General Fund budget deliberations stumbled along this year, we heard a lot about what the state can afford, what voters will support and what is off the table because of legislators’ prior commitments. I don’t recall hearing anyone ask of any proposed revenue measure or draft budget, “Would this make Alabama weaker or stronger?”
I recently posed that question to a Senate leader. The legislator noted the challenge of defining strength but speculated that 60 percent of fellow lawmakers probably could agree on an answer for any given proposal. That’s enough votes to pass a strong General Fund budget.
Budget shortfalls are an unfortunate Alabama tradition. But the 2016 funding gap is different than usual, because there’s no rainy-day money or federal relief to patch the hole. During the regular session, Gov. Robert Bentley and some legislators floated numerous proposals to raise revenue, with or without raising taxes. In the end, nothing flew.
The budget that lawmakers halfheartedly approved last month, and that Bentley vetoed, called for no new revenue. Alabama’s vital services, already tattered by deep recession-era funding cuts, would be slashed even more:
- An end to Medicaid coverage for outpatient dialysis, prosthetics and adult eyeglasses.
- Cuts to community mental health services for thousands of Alabamians.
- Loss of child care supports for thousands of working families.
- More overcrowding in a state prison system already operating at nearly twice its designed capacity.
The list goes on: longer trial delays, fewer state troopers, closures of state parks and National Guard armories, drastic cuts in home- and community-based long-term care. Picture the results in your hometown and across Alabama. Would these changes make our state weaker or stronger?
That rock-bottom budget likely will be the starting point for discussion during a special session later this summer. Lawmakers are under intense pressure in the meantime to come up with new ideas. We urge them to set aside preconceptions and apply the strength test to each proposal. Making the case for a stronger Alabama can redefine our priorities and offer new opportunities for the leadership we need.
Our state budget is more than a balance sheet. It’s a statement of our values. We need a budget that protects our most vulnerable neighbors.
Alabama is at a crossroads. The path we choose now could define our state for a generation. Will the 2016 General Fund budget make Alabama weaker or stronger? Only the Legislature can decide.
Unless fresh thinking or leadership changes the debate, rock bottom may well become the new normal. For the most vulnerable Alabamians, the resulting cuts would be life-threatening. Every community would feel its quality of life decline.
Alabamians deserve a better future. In these weeks before a special session, it’s crucial for people to contact their lawmakers and urge them to lead. There’s a different path to a stronger Alabama, and we need new revenue to get there.
Jim Carnes is policy director of Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of 150 congregations and organizations dedicated to improving the lives of low-income Alabamians. Email: [email protected].