By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Tuesday, September 8, the Alabama Legislature goes into session for the third time this year. They are tasked with passing a State General Fund (SGF) budget to fund the State’s General Fund, beginning on October 1. The legislature already passed a budget, but Alabama Governor Robert Bentley declared that “austere budget” to be unworkable forcing this current crisis. In the first Special Session, the State Senate passed the austere budget again; but the state House of Representative inexplicably voted down that budget, which would have finally rightsized SGF spending to match actual SGF income in a tiff with state Senators over an un-earmarking bill.
The State legislature has avoided dealing realistically with the SGF budget since the Great Recession of 2008 to 2009 began by using reserve accounts, Obama stimulus money, and raiding the Alabama Trust Fund by over $547 million of its principal (a disastrous move since interest off of that principal is a key source of SGF income). Now all the raided money has been spent and efforts to lure new industry to Alabama have not yet led to an economic renaissance that filters all the way down to the SGF. Income and sales taxes are actually way up; but due to the bizarre way that Alabama budgets all that money is earmarked for the State’s education trust fund (ETF). The 2016 ETF budget is presently the second largest in the history of the State.
Gov. Bentley has asked for more taxes to fully fund (and then some) more SGF spending. His first plan back in February called for $700 million a year, then he trimmed that to $500 million a year in new taxes on the people of Alabama during the regular session. In the first special session Bentley asked for a more realistic $310 to 301 million tax increase plan. None of his plans have ever gotten out of committee in the House. This time he has asked for $260 million in more money. An additional $200 million will fully fund the SGF, though other money is requested in order to implement prison and Medicaid reforms.
The Bentley administration has prepared a list of likely cuts if the tax increase package does not pass and the State legislature instead passes the austere budget.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency will: close all driver license offices except Mobile, Montgomery, Birmingham and Huntsville, close 13 Trooper posts, shut down the Agriculture and Rural Crime Unit, layoff Aviation staff and Fleet Management Staff, layoff 1/3 of all non-sworn personnel, layoff 75 of 431 Highway Patrol Troopers, layoff 30 of 147 Special Agents, and layoff 8 of 31 Capitol Police Troopers.
The Alabama Department of Public Health will: close the Coosa County Health Department, reduce Licensures and Certifications, eliminate nicotine patch purchases, reduce disease control staff, reduce staff for restaurant health inspections, and reduce area and state support staff.
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources will: have some layoffs, lose Federal Funds for Marine Resources and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries and close facilities including: several State Parks, Lands Division facilities, and Wildlife facilities. The size and scope is yet to be determined but the figure of 15 State parks has been used.
The Department of Forensic Sciences will close the Huntsville Morgue and eliminate fire debris (arson) analysis.
The Department of Youth Services will: lose diversion grants, layoff personnel and close detention facilities, and the juvenile commitment backlog will likely increase.
The Department of Agriculture and Industries will likely: close two diagnostic labs that test dead farm animals for diseases and the seed lab.
The Department of Senior Services is expected to lose $2.55 million in federal funds because the state won’t have the funds to provide matching dollars. Federal Funding is 69 percent of their funding versus 31 percent from the state. This could lead to an expanded waiting list beyond the current referral list of 7,100+ and increased costs by diverting clients from Medicaid Waiver program ($838 monthly) back into costly intuitional care ($5,900 monthly).
The Environmental Management Agency (ADEM) will have less money for inspections so the Bentley administration claim there could be an: increase in abandoned waste landfills and tire dump sites, an increase in illegal dumps, and deferred or eliminated cleanup of petroleum releases into soil and groundwater.
The Department of Commerce will eliminate project recruitment efforts.
The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) is threatening to: eliminate the Alabama Rural Development Office, eliminate the Small Business Office, eliminate the Appalachian Regional Commission and warns that there will be a loss of federal funds for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and the Community Service Block Grant (CSBG).
The Military Department warns that they may have to close up to 11 Armories (13 percent of Armories) in the State.
The Department of Labor will layoff two of seven positions (leaving only five employees in Mine Safety Division). This will lead to reduced and delayed mine safety inspections and the elimination of the training contract with Bevill State College for mine rescue teams.
Medicaid will have to make cuts to medical services for the poor and nursing home services for the elderly.
Governor Bentley said, “Over the last few months, I have met with House and Senate members to discuss options and ideas that would prevent devastating cuts to state services. I look forward to working with lawmakers over the next few weeks to bring about real change in the way we fund state government moving forward.”
Many state legislators have proposed simply moving $240 million in use taxes from the ETF which is predicted to have a surplus of $260 million a year. Education proponents argue that the only reason that education has a projected surplus is that teachers and education workers have only gotten one raise in the last 8 years.