Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that simple — or that gloomy, either.
Sure, lawmakers face a dire situation Tuesday when they begin the 2011 session. With federal stimulus money gone, with new revenue streams non-existent, with recession effects lingering, the state doesn’t have enough money to meet its projected financial needs. Call it proration, call it overzealous budgeting, call it whatever you want. There’s not enough money to cover the state’s bills.
First-year Gov. Robert Bentley is new to his office, a political longshot now sitting in former Gov. Bob Riley’s chair, but already he has set the stage for what’s to come. “Cut,” he says, emphatically. The Legislature, friendly to a fellow GOPer, is sure to follow that directive with zeal.
That’s the gloomy part.
But on a grander scale, our wish is for the 2011 session to be more than a byproduct of the obvious. Our wish is for this historic, Republican-controlled Legislature to become a chef of healthy, good-tasting laws that give Alabama the nutrients it needs: jobs, industries, educational advancements and a heightened concern for the impoverished and the young.
The 2011 session could be a bore, week after week of hand-wringing over budget cuts with no reflection about how to take the state forward in spite of these hardships. Or, if we had our way, it could be an extraordinary session that changes Alabama for the better.
Below, we offer The Star Editorial Board’s do’s and don’ts for the 2011 session.
The 2011 do's and dont's for the Alabama
Legislature DO LESSEN THE TAX BURDEN ON THE POOR BY ENDING THE SALES TAX ON GROCERIES. It took an act of historic proportions — the GOP takeover of the state Legislature — to get ethics reform through Goat Hill. Sadly, there seems to be no similar paradigm shift that would get Alabama legislators to stop taxing food in this state.
Oh, we wish that weren’t the case. It seems so simple: Taxing food hurts the poor more than the well-to-do, and we’re one of only two states who still use that inhumane practice. That the revenue lost could be replaced with an appropriate tax on the well-to-do makes it seem like an obvious to-do for the Legislature.
If lawmakers are not interested in helping low-income Alabamians, they should say it.
DON’T DEDICATE THE ENTIRE SESSION TO THE SOLE CHORE OF CUTTING COSTS. Let’s not delude ourselves and think the fiscal health of the state is good. It isn’t. Gov. Robert Bentley is floating double-digit budget cuts for non-education agencies in each of the next two years. Do the math; if implemented, that will sternly affect virtually every state agency for the foreseeable future.
Our suggestion to the Legislature is to commit to equal parts improvement and budget-cutting. For every agency that loses sizeable chunks of its budget, legislators should also propose doable revenue-creating laws that would help soothe the problem.
Leading in 2011 can’t be cut, cut, cut. In fact, that’s not leading. That’s political cowardice.
DO INCLUDE THE STATE’S TAX LOOPHOLES FOR THE WEALTHY IN DISCUSSIONS ON BALANCING THE BOOKS: The state’s upside-down, Robin-Hood-in-reverse tax code harms the poor while fluffing the pillows of the already comfortable. The system is rigged so that the more you have — to timber land, for instance — the less you pay as a percentage of your income. Closing or tightening these loopholes will take the state a long way toward fiscal sanity.
DON’T NEGLECT THE HUNDREDS OF BIBLE VERSES THAT PUT A PRIORITY ON CARING FOR THE POOR: Too many ideologues in Montgomery see the state’s budget crisis as some sort of Ayn Randian fantasy come true. They will take the ax to the social safety-net programs that set their teeth on edge. Yet, we must acknowledge Alabama’s safety net is already frayed and ragged; more cuts will devastate residents on the bottom rungs of the ladder. The potential for lives cut short of their potential because of this stinginess is all but certain. Pretending otherwise is folly.
DO US A FAVOR AND TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT CUTTING SERVICES AND RAISING TAXES. There’s no reason to belabor this point, other than to say this: Admitting that lawmakers would rather cut services than raise taxes to pay for said services would save a lot of editorial ink and put an end to all the idealist hope that keeps appearing for no reason.
DON’T SUCCUMB TO FEAR — AND DAMNABLE POLITICS — AND CLOSE THE STATEHOUSE TO VOTERS. Sure, the attempted assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., sent shock waves throughout Washington and the nation’s statehouses. Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate security measures.
But closing capitol buildings and legislative halls to voters — or simply restricting access — is a slippery slope Alabama’s GOP-led Legislature should avoid. Don’t tell us it’s because there are too many people milling around in the hallways and it’s difficult to get work done. Hooey, we say.
Politicians who want to close capitol buildings from voters do so because that’s the easy way to hide. The actions of one misguided soul in Arizona shouldn’t cause the Alabama Legislature to become an armed camp. It’s also not an excuse to put locked doors between lawmakers and voters they serve.
DO GRANT TAX BREAKS TO BUSINESSES BASED ON THE JOBS THEY CREATE. It’s not a radical thought. If Bentley and the Legislature want to create jobs and lower unemployment, this is a worthy method. And don’t think for a minute that entrepreneurs whose businesses need new personnel won’t be interested in lowering their tax burden.
DON’T MISS THE OPPORTUNITY TO PUT AN END TO LEGISLATORS RECEIVING FREE OR DISCOUNTED TICKETS. Red-handed lawmakers do the Montgomery two-step when they try to rationalize the perk that is free and discounted tickets. They say they’re recruiting out-of-state jobs and making business contacts when they fly to national championship games in California and Arizona. They say it’s not a perk because they pay for them.
Of course, they’re wrong. A perk is a perk — and legislators who are given the ability to buy tickets that the general public doesn’t have access to are receiving something they shouldn’t.
The Alabama Legislature has talked a big game recently on ethics. This should be added to that discussion. Lawmakers should have to wait in the same line as everyone else when they’re buying tickets.
DO REQUIRE LEGISLATORS TO PASS THE HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION EXAM IN HISTORY, GOVERNMENT AND ECONOMICS. No, this isn’t a joke. We’ve often wondered if legislators truly understand the basic tenets of civics, finance and state history. Now that they’re elected, it would be good to know the truth. Teachers are held accountable. Students are held accountable. Why not legislators?
DON’T CONTINUE THIS GAME OF “FOOL US ONCE … FOOL US TWICE” WITH THE STATE CONSTITUTION. Yes, it’s evil and needs a complete overhaul. No, we don’t expect the state Legislature to willingly go down that path. But the beginning of any legislative session must contain this plea. One day, Alabama’s lawmakers will listen. Until then, Alabama suffers.
DO SAY YES TO GAMBLING — AND NOT ONLY IN OTHER STATES. We’ll repeat what this editorial board considers a strong recommendation. The Legislature should acknowledge that Alabamians spend millions gambling in neighboring states, and it should allow state-run liquor stores to sell lottery tickets from those states. Ticket-buyers would be charged a surcharge for the convenience of not driving to Florida or Georgia for their potential jackpot. Alabama would cash in on gambling without really having it.
DON’T IGNORE SIMPLE WAYS TO PUMP UP ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT. It’s easy to love industrial-recruiting efforts that bring thousands of jobs to the state. Honda? Yes. Mercedes? Yes. Thyssen-Krupp? Yes. But lawmakers should remember that basic legislation can often mean the difference for business owners that employ a handful of people. As an example, we’d suggest making it easier for brewpubs to operate in the state. Archaic rules that hamper business don’t make sense.