It’s quite apparent that over the past decade Alabama has fallen behind in almost every important category. The primary reason for the decline is because those in government leadership roles have consistently taken the easy way out on the state’s fiscal problems. For years, every candidate for Governor, as well as most candidates for the Legislature, have promised “no new taxes” when seeking office. As a result, state agencies and public education in our state have been sorely neglected and grossly underfunded for years. But during the same time the demand for services has increased sharply. Those agencies living out of the General Fund have been funded with a series of poorly planned budgets with the approach being mostly to patch, borrow and depend on federal funds. Rather than solving problems, we have “borrowed from Peter to pay Paul” in most budgets and recently have depended heavily on stimulus money from the federal government to make ends meet in state government.
Few in positions of authority in state government seem to comprehend that increasing services in our state over a period of years, with no corresponding increases in revenues, was a massive fiscal disaster waiting to happen. Such an approach had to eventually lead exactly to where our state is today. To put that in plain terms, we are “broke as a haint.” While “cussing the federal government,” our state leaders were receiving and using hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to put temporary patches on the state’s budgets to make things work. The federal stimulus money was used in the most recent budgets – knowing full well that those funds wouldn’t be available this year –with no plan to replace that money in this year’s budgets.
A few years back, the Alabama Legislature – with the approval of the people of Alabama – amended the state Constitution to set up a rainy-day account. The premise was that the money put into that account would be drawn out when times were bad. One requirement of that law was that the Legislature must repay any money that was withdrawn. In 2009, Gov. Bob Riley withdrew $437.4 million from the rainy-day account to avoid having to declare proration in the general fund or to have mid-year budget cuts in 2010 and 2011. The money was to be repaid by 2015. Thus far, the state Legislature hasn’t repaid any of that money. With three years to go before the rainy-day note comes due, there doesn’t appear to be a plan on how this loan will be repaid.
For years political leaders in our state have avoided asking Alabamians to pay for adequate state services, including our public schools. State government has lived far below its means for decades. Alabama – per capita – has the lowest taxes in the nation, and while it may sound good politically to brag about that fact, it has created monumental fiscal problems for state agencies and for public education.
I am convinced that the state needs to raise additional revenues during the current session, use the additional funds wisely and then plan ahead for the future operation of state government. It’s time for our political leaders in Alabama to step up to the plate – admit that the state needs additional revenues – and then take the necessary steps to put state government on sound fiscal ground. To do otherwise may sound good from a purely “political perspective,” but failing to act responsibly will do tremendous damage to our state.
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