If there were a real “crisis,” everyone would be working together with focus. The tornadoes that tore through north Alabama a few years ago was a crisis. Everyone was working together, state/city/county, Democrat/Republican, black/white, wealthy/poor, it didn’t matter. People gave away their food and water. People brought everything they had to help clear debris. People opened their homes to those that lost everything. People donated a tremendous amount of money to provide for the needs of folks they didn’t even know; the community did great things together.
That is how you respond to a “crisis.”
So understanding this, there cannot be a “crisis” with our state budget. Why? Because nobody is working together. People are concerned about protecting their turf over the well-being of others. Bad options that affect others are numerous, as long as they only affect others.
Most options take advantage of those with the least political influence. Ideas that were taboo in the recent past are now viable options. Special interest groups are using the phrase, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Name calling and blame is rampant, and the truth is hard to find. Does that sound like there is a budget crisis to you? It doesn’t to me either.
We have plenty of money in Alabama to run the government. The problem is the foundation of our budgeting process.
We have two budgets—a budget for education and a budget for the rest of the government. Although the two budgets are to be totally separate, they have been grossly intermingled for years. People have argued for years that having two budgets protects education, but nothing can be farther from the truth.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in non-educational programs are now funded by the education budget at the expense of education. Since 2007, education money for K12, post-secondary and higher education has decreased by 4%. That doesn’t sound like much until you put a dollar amount on it – a $400 million decrease per year. The numbers do not lie. Having two budgets does not protect education dollars.
So why do we still do it that way?
We would not be allowed to have a budget for young people and a separate budget for our senior citizens. We would not be allowed to have a budget for healthy people and a separate budget for those with illness and handicaps. And we certainly would not be allowed to have budgets that separated our state by race. But in Alabama it is OK to separate education from the rest of government.
In Alabama, it is OK for the education sector to thrive while the rest of the government starves. But honestly, it is not OK. We are all Alabamians. We should be united in our efforts to make Alabama a better place for everyone. As Alabama does well, all Alabamians should be lifted up. If Alabama struggles, we all should sacrifice. We are not a divided people and we need to stop separating Alabama into winners and losers. So again, why do we still do it that way?
The answer is simple: special interest groups have taken advantage of the process and controlled the legislature for years and it still occurs today.
It is time for that to stop.
47 other states have one budget and education is not suffering and as a matter of fact, education is excelling. We can do the same and I have offered the education community a reasonable framework to protect education.
As of October 1, the education budget will complete the 2015 fiscal year with a $110 million surplus. By the end of the 2016 fiscal year, the education budget will have a projected surplus of $350 million in addition to the existing $435 Million Education Rainy Day Fund.
We do not need $800 million sitting idle in surplus funds. You should also note that the upcoming 2016 education budget is one of the largest investments of state funds in the history of Alabama.
On the other hand, the General Fund has about a $200 million shortfall. I know that you have heard shortfall numbers of $700 million, $541 million, $300 million and $250 million, but we really have about a $200 million shortfall.
Unfortunately, instead of using a portion of the surplus from the ‘protected’ budget, the Governor wants to raise your taxes on cigarettes, sodas, cars, insurance, and deductions.
Instead of using a portion of the available surplus, some have used this opportunity to push casinos and gambling as the great solution. Some are even willing to cut healthcare for those less fortunate, willing to close hospitals in our rural communities and willing to slash public safety and other vital services. Using a portion of the surplus will not affect the education budget at all. Even after a portion of the surplus is used we will still put $150 million into savings.
If you still think that keeping two separate budgets is best for Alabama, then please let me know which of your taxes I can raise, which hospital and doctors in your community are not needed, which child of yours is not worth protecting from abuse, which jobs in your community are not needed, and which meal you want to cut from the senior citizen in your neighborhood.
It is time to stop playing games in Alabama: we have enough money. What we need is the political backbone to do the right thing. The right thing would be to use the money we have, continue to eliminate unnecessary waste and find more efficient ways to operate our government.
Alabama Senator Paul Bussman (R-Cullman) represents the 4th State Senate District.