Unless and until shown otherwise with actual facts and details, this column will make the case that much of Alabama government is underfunded.
Even to type that sentence above is to subject myself to an extreme fingernails-across-chalkboard sensation, because I’m a hardline fiscal conservative and, personally, a proud skinflint in many situations. Still, facts always must trump ideology. The very abbreviated version of an overflowing bushel of facts goes like this:
First, new reports show that Alabama actually spends less (inflation-adjusted) per child on education now than it did in 2006, and particularly less on actual teaching expenses rather than on transportation or “other” expenses. Granted, interim state superintendent Ed Richardson rightly says that the state school bureaucracy is bloated, so there are presumably ways to shift money around – but even so, our funding levels are still among the 12 lowest in the nation – and our educational attainments are among the eight worst in the country, and by another measurement among the six worst with an overall grade of ‘D+’.
And education is one of the areas of government that is least underfunded in Alabama.
Second, our mental health care, especially (but far from exclusively) in the prison system, is so inadequate that a federal judge this year wrote that it violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” and ordered “both immediate and long term” relief. And even apart from mental health treatment, Alabama prisons are seriously overcrowded and underfunded, by every measure I’ve seen.
Third, the general-fund budget for the current fiscal year is being balanced only by a special infusion of $105 million, for Medicaid, from the BP oil-spill settlement. Without that onetime funding source (which will not be available in future years), the state will start fiscal year 2019 with more than a $100 million Medicaid spending gap – and with Medicaid costs growing much faster than inflation, that gap is likely actually to be much bigger. Much of that spending is, in effect, federally mandated.
Fourth, District Attorneys across the state have faced repeated budget cuts or tightening in recent years; the number of state troopers, even after a slight bump approved for this year, still trails significantly below what it was just eight years ago; and courts and state pensions also are seriously underfunded.
These are all essential functions of state government. None of them are extravagances. All are able to be compared with spending levels in other states – to show that Alabama’s needs for greater revenue aren’t due just to “poor management” or “waste, fraud, and abuse,” but instead are objectively demonstrable.
Finally, President Trump Administration is repaying Alabama’s strong support for him with a slap in the face, by threatening to take away one major source of existing funding from ongoing offshore mineral revenues. He probably won’t succeed in doing so – but if he does, Alabama’s funding crisis will get substantially worse.
None of this is to say that better management can’t achieve savings here and there. Indeed, our lawmakers and administrators must do an even better job of “scrubbing the budget” (to use a phrase made popular by a former, conservative Louisiana governor). Still, nobody yet has shown the slightest evidence that we can find enough spare change from better management to come close to meeting these ongoing needs without some new revenue source.
We’ll explore all this in greater detail in coming months. For now, though, please start internalizing the evidence: Alabama’s government, for essential services alone, needs more money. Period.
Yellowhammer Contributing Editor Quin Hillyer, of Mobile, also is a Contributing Editor for National Review Online, and is the author of Mad Jones, Heretic, a satirical literary novel published in the fall of 2017.