By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Tackling budget reform is priority one, according to Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia). Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) called for reforms and voiced his commitment during the recent Special Legislative Session.
During this Session, McCutcheon sponsored and passed JHR62, which establishes a task force with a five-point mandate that will culminate with recommendations for budget reforms to be presented at the beginning of the 2017 Regular Session.
The task force will meet resistance from agencies, lobbyists, and even fellow legislators, making structural changes difficult, if not impossible.
The goal of the task force is to review and offer guidance for existing State tax credits, deductions and exemptions that cost the State approximately $4.5 billion in revenue annually. The budget reform group is charged with examining State agencies’ spending as well.
The goal is to evaluate and recommend changes to State budgeting practices including, but not limited to:
(1) Implementing a biennial budgeting cycle for the Education Trust Fund and General Fund.
(2) Requiring State entities to undergo greater performance and program reviews.
(3) Unearmarking funds in order to provide for greater legislative oversight and appropriating flexibility.
(4) Reviewing existing State tax credits, deductions, and exemptions that result in the loss of approximately $4.5 billion in revenue to our State budgets each year, and creating a policy to ensure that future tax credits effectively provide economic gain to the State.
(5) Identifying areas to provide tax relief to Alabama families without significantly impacting State budgets.
The committee’s ultimate aim is to find real solutions to the ever troubled State General Fund Budget. However, after five Legislative sessions over the last 19 months, the General Fund Budget continues to be an undernourished leviathan, incapable of generating the funds needed to meet even its basic obligations.
Government waste and incompetence is rampant, but there is no one, single villain who fits neatly on a “Wanted Poster” just bureaucrats. The massive failures of the Office of Information Technology (OIT) and the Department of Finance are incalculable, and almost inscrutable, for an average lawmaker. These are prime examples of bureaucracies run-amuck and cry out for accountability measures to be implemented by the State Legislature.
The CARES system has cost an estimated $37 million, and counting, STAARS, $47 million and counting, and there are others. There is no end in sight for wasteful spending in Alabama.
The CARES system project is squandering millions of taxpayer dollars. Millions continue to be wasted on STARRS. The time management software eSTART flaws led to major agencies leaving the program months ago. And pallets of phones, valued at more a more than a million dollars, sit in a warehouse gathering dust. No one seems to care, and no one is being held accountable.
Speaker McCutcheon believes progress is possible, but it will require cooperation from agencies ever eager to protect their turf, and lawmakers who will seek to make political hay by attacking agencies.
Every year, a joint legislative conference grills agency heads about their budget, but it’s mostly for show. During the last joint budget oversight committee hearing, Acting Finance Director Bill Newton was aggressively questioned about the failed STAARS system. However, he was allowed to dance around the subject by offering a vague mea culpa.
Newton took a tongue lashing, but suffered no real consequences. Gov. Robert Bentley looked the other way while lawmakers appeared satisfied by his promises that, all will be well.
Bentley put forward a tax plan in 2016, that called for an end to ALFA’s enormous premium tax credit, which would have added between $20 and $30 million to the General Fund. But, with just a little pushback from ALFA’s lobbyists, Bentley and the Legislature caved. Many believed those millions weren’t worth a fight. Toward the end of the 2016 Special Session, Pro Tem Del Marsh signaled the fight was still on, but that remains to be seen. Time will tell.
Some estimate that the 2017 General Fund Budget is currently underfunded by $50 million.
The Budget Reform Task Force will meet before the end of September, with a monthly meeting to follow, until the 2017 Regular Session in February.
Rep. Danny Garrett (R-Trussville) and Sen. Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville) were appointed to serve as co-chairs of the committee. Additionally, the following individuals have been appointed to serve:
Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Range)
Sen. Linda Coleman- Madison (D- Birmingham)
Sen. Bill Hightower (R-Mobile)
Sen. Bill Holtzclaw (R-Madison)
Sen. Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro)
Sen. Phil Williams (R-Rainbow City)
Rep. Anthony Daniels (R-Huntsville)
Rep. Allen Farley (R –McCalla)
Rep. John Knight (D- Montgomery)
Rep. Chris Pringle (R-Mobile)
Rep. Kyle South (R-Fayette)
Rep. Rich Wingo (R-Tuscaloosa)