Gov. Robert Bentley issued a bold challenge to Alabama legislators on Thursday: “Don’t cower away from the difficult things we’ve got to face.”
Bentley, discussing the state’s undeniably dire General Fund Budget crisis, said lawmakers could either continue kicking the can down the road by patching the deficits with one-time fixes, or they could take on the daunting challenge of reforming the system for the long haul.
According to Senate General Fund Budget Chairman Arthur Orr (R-Decatur), the General Fund is facing a shortfall of roughly $260 million in the next fiscal year.
Bentley said he believes the state needs more revenue. He has not made an official proposal, but has floated a variety of ideas ranging from expanding gambling to raising taxes by eliminating deductions.
But one Republican lawmaker on Thursday told Yellowhammer he’d like to see the governor take the bold step of leading the wholesale reform of Alabama’s budgets, solving some of the state’s most pressing and recurring problems once and for all.
“Gov Bentley today told the legislature, ‘Don’t cower from the difficult things we’ve got to face.’ Significant changes ‘have to be done this year,'” Said Rep. Ed Henry, a Republican from Hartselle who was just elected to his second term in the House. “The question is, what significant changes is he planning? If Gov. Bentley really wants do something courageous, he should use his political capital to combine Alabama’s budgets and solve our budgeting problems for the longterm.”
Alabama is one of only three states in the country that operates out of two separate budgets — the Education Trust Fund (ETF), which funds the state’s education system, and the General Fund (GF) that funds everything else. As a result of the control the Alabama Education Association (AEA) had over Alabama’s state government for decades, the vast majority of the growth taxes are funneled into the ETF, often leaving the GF incapable of meeting its obligations.
Making matters worse, 88 percent of Alabama’s tax revenue is earmarked. That’s by far the highest percentage of any state in the country, and it leaves very little flexibility for lawmakers to increase government efficiency or to move money around to patch holes.
Henry’s idea of combining Alabama’s budgets is not a new one. However, in spite of the vast majority of Republican legislators agreeing that it would do the most to solve Alabama’s budgeting woes, it has not gotten significant consideration. The reason is that it requires more than just the legislature passing a bill and the governor signing it, it would also require voters approving a Constitutional Amendment on the ballot.
A ballot initiative like that would prompt the AEA — a group that just spent roughly $20 million trying to unseat Republicans this election cycle — to do everything in its power to stop it. In 2012, for example, the AEA spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an ad campaign to defeat an amendment that would have simply removed language regarding segregated schools and poll taxes from the Alabama Constitution. And that was in spite of the non-partisan Alabama Law Institute publishing a legal opinion that it “would not have any impact on the rights, funding, implementing, or structure of public education in Alabama.”
That ballot initiative went down in flames because there was not a group supporting it who had the deep pockets to compete with the AEA’s opposition. And it’s easy to imagine a similar scenario playing out if there were a ballot initiative to combine the budgets and roll back earmarking, although it’s also conceivable that groups could support the initiative financially, as well.
But the one thing that no amount of money could buy is a popular governor who is not facing another election using his political capital and the bully pulpit his office affords him to lead the charge.
A spokesperson for Gov. Bentley told Yellowhammer Thursday that the governor supports the idea of combining the budgets, but has not yet publicly announced what will make it into his budget proposal.
“The Governor has always supported the idea of combining the state budgets,” said Jennifer Ardis, the governor’s communications director. “He was clear today about the difficult decisions needed to solve the budgeting problems for the long term, and he will be making bold recommendations soon.”
Lawmakers are anxiously awaiting Bentley’s proposal, but it will take much more than the governor’s “support” to pull off a heavy lift like combining the budgets, it will take courage and leadership.
“That would take a remarkable leader with a lot of political influence to pull off,” said Rep. Henry. “And I think Gov. Bentley could do it.”
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— Cliff Sims (@Cliff_Sims) December 3, 2014