- Cullman, Alabama

February 7, 2013

EDITORIAL: Budgets and consequences

The Cullman Times

CULLMAN — Alabama’s top financial experts are predicting the Legislature will have more money to spend on education, which is a reflection of the disparity that plagues the state’s two budgets.

With the education budget getting the lion’s share of sales tax revenue, any noticeable turnaround in the economy delivers additional funds for public schools. The General Fund, however, will likely remain stagnant as it barely holds up multiple services such as prison, courts, Medicaid and other vital functions.

Gov. Robert Bentley last year pitched the idea of merging the budgets into one, which would allow lawmakers to sort through available revenue to fund services more accurately. The cry from the education community quickly deflated any desire among legislators to even discuss the idea.

So here stands the state, captive as usual to the fantasy that public education will somehow be harmed if it doesn’t get the greater share of revenue coming into the state. In the meantime, Alabama is creeping closer to federal intervention in its overcrowded prison system. Without some relief to that situation, the feds could step in and demand action, such as releasing inmates to make conditions more suitable. No one in the anti-big government state of Alabama wants such a heavy hand to strike.

While another generation may fade away before anything changes with the budget structure, lawmakers will at least need to explore how to pump a fresh stream of revenue into the General Fund. The current limitations of the budget doesn’t allow much relief, especially with the rising cost of Medicaid and the uncertainty of the federal health care initiative’s impact on the state.

Waiting for the economy to shift into overdrive is nothing more than wishful thinking at this time. Recovery is coming in measured steps, not leaps and bounds. Efforts to eliminate duplication among government agencies will certainly provide some assistance for the budget, but there is no guarantee that the political process will allow this to go as far as it should. And there is no assurance that there is enough waste to throw out for the sake of making the General Fund more healthy.

At some point, lawmakers will have to consider restructuring or redirecting more money into the General Fund. That may involve a tax increase along the way, a move that shouldn’t be ruled out if all else fails.