By Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford
There aren’t a whole lot of good things anyone can say about what’s been going on in Montgomery lately. The legislature has failed to pass a budget-twice! Next week, legislators return to Montgomery for a third legislative session to address the budget crisis, but there is still no agreement on any solution.
But despite all of this, there is one area where some progress has been made: support among legislators for a state lottery.
This special legislative session gives us one more chance to create a state lottery, and we cannot waste this opportunity. Why? Because our state’s budget crisis is not going away, and we have no other real solutions for the long-term that will help our revenue problems. But most importantly, we must pass a state lottery to protect our children’s educations.
I say that that because the only solution currently being promoted to shore up the General Fund budget is to raid the Education Trust Fund. Supporters of this plan claim there is a surplus in the education budget, even though funding for public education has dropped by more than 20 percent since 2008.
Prominent Republican leaders are also pointing to money in a reserve account created by the Rolling Reserve Act. Republicans passed the Rolling Reserve Act in 2015 by arguing that it was necessary to prevent proration in the education budget. The Rolling Reserve Act set up a limit on how much could be spent on education each year, and then set up an account where any revenue above that limit would be held in case we have a year where we have proration.
Now these same Republican legislators want to take that money-set aside to protect education-and use it to pay for prisons and things that have nothing to do with education. Legislators have already been using the education budget to pay themselves, as the Decatur Daily reported earlier this week.
It’s clear that, now more than ever, education funding is in jeopardy by an Alabama legislature that doesn’t believe our children’s education is a priority.
The whole point of the Rolling Reserve Act was to protect education funding in the lean years, not as a way to go around the constitution and use education money to bail out the general fund.
But the reality is that Republicans hold a supermajority, which means they have absolute power. And the only thing they seem to be able to agree on is this plan to take the money from education. That means education is about to take a big hit, and an education lottery can help soften that blow.
I have spoken with many Republican legislators who say they support the lottery. Many of them seem very willing to work with Democrats to include a lottery as a part of the solution to the budget crisis.
That is why, when the legislature returns to Montgomery on September 8th, I will immediately introduce an education lottery where 100 percent of the proceeds will be used to fund scholarships for Alabama’s children.
Some critics have argued that the lottery won’t solve the current budget crisis because of the time it would take to hold a statewide referendum and then, assuming it passed, implement it. But without long-term revenue we will keep having budget crises year after year. If we pass the lottery in this special session, we can get in on the ballot in time for next years elections (saving the costs of a special election) and start receiving revenue by 2017.
If we keep waiting to pass the lottery, then every time we have another budget crisis the critics will just keep making the same arguments. Passing the lottery is proactive, not reactive. The point is to avoid future crises, not just to get out of the one we are currently in.
The children of Alabama deserve a high quality public education. If the Republicans are going to take $200 million out of education to solve this current budget crisis, then there needs to be a plan to put that money back.
The answer to the budget crisis shouldn’t come at the expense of our children’s education. If anything, the education budget needs more money, not less. But the good news is that legislators on both sides of the aisle seem ready to support a lottery, and now is the time pass it! We can’t delay anymore; our children’s futures are on the line.
Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.