State spending has grown in certain areas, but Bentley says it could have grown even more
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Dec 24, 2013 | 3085 views |  0 comments | 52 52 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — Gov. Robert Bentley and Republican lawmakers announced Monday that they've achieved their goal of finding $1 billion in savings for state government — though critics say the projected savings come at the expense of crucial state services.

"Some of these savings we've already found," Bentley said. "Some of them are small and some of them are large, but they all reflect our commitment to reviewing state spending and increasing efficiency."

Bentley announced last year that his administration intended to find a way to save state government $1 billion by the end of his first term. On Monday he announced that the state had already achieved that goal, making changes that have, or will soon, save the state money.

More than half of Bentley's projected savings came from changes in how the state deals with its own employees. There were around 40,000 state workers when Bentley took office, but their numbers have shrunk by about 4,500 since then — saving the state’s payroll $160.7 million. Reforms to state pensions — including a provision that requires state employees to kick in an additional 2.5 percent toward their retirement — saved another $345.6 million, according to Bentley's projections. Changes to state- and school-employee health insurance trimmed another $118.8 million from state spending, by Bentley's projections.

"The people wanted us to reduce the size of government," Bentley said. "They wanted us to tighten our belts. They wanted us to do what they have to do on a personal level themselves every day."

Yet efforts to truly trim the cost of state government resemble a game of whack-a-mole, with new expenses popping up even as other areas of government are cut. Overall spending by Alabama's state government this year is actually greater than it was when Bentley sworn in.

The Education Trust Fund, the larger of Alabama’s two budgets, spent $5.4 billion in 2011, the first year of Bentley’s term. This year, it’s projected to spend $5.8 billion. The General Fund budget grew over the same period from $1.6 billion to $1.7 billion.

Bentley said the state would have spent more without his administration's cost-cutting efforts.

"There are some costs out there that we did not anticipate, and things do escalate as far as the cost of government," Bentley said.

The state's costs for Medicaid and prisons have both grown substantially in recent years. In 2012, Alabama took $437 million out of a state trust fund to plug a budget hole that state officials attributed to the growth of both programs.

"It's the most hypocritical thing I've seen this quadrennium," House Minority leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said of Bentley's savings projections.

Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said the governor deserved praise for his cost-cutting efforts.

"The fact of the matter is, I don't care how you look at it, you've got 5,000 less state employees today in this state," said Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston. Marsh said the money saved by reducing the state payroll has gone into programs such as the governor's expansion of pre-kindergarten education.

The director of the Alabama State Employees Association said the personnel cuts have hurt critical state services — and have hurt the employees who remain. The lack of cost-of-living raises, combined with increased employee contributions for benefits, added up to a 15 percent decrease in the average state employee's purchasing power over the last five years, ASEA director Mac McArthur said.

"That workforce is being asked to do more and more, and at the end of the day when you look at these savings, it's coming out of the skins and pockets of state employees," McArthur said.

McArthur said the cuts have been a particular problem for the Department of Corrections, where state officials have long acknowledged a shortage of staff.

Not all of Bentley's projected savings were from cuts to state personnel or their benefits. The governor said the state had saved $20.4 million from refinancing state bonds, with more savings down the road. The state will spent $15.3 million on legal defense for indigent defendants in 2013, according to the governor’s numbers. By making newly-unemployed people wait a week before receiving their first unemployment checks, the state saved $11.4 million per year.

"Every savings, no matter the size, is an opportunity for us to really focus on the essential functions of government," Bentley said.

Within the past year, the Legislature has approved a reorganization of Alabama's Medicaid program, a restructuring of state law enforcement agencies, and the creation of a new cabinet position to oversee the state's information technology services. Bentley said all of those changes will lead to savings in coming years.

"Government does not change unless you change it," he said. "We have changed it."

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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