Leadership in Montgomery was mostly absent when the Legislature was writing and the governor was signing the General Fund budget.
When the Legislature gathered earlier this year, it was apparent that money was scarce. Short of a miracle, Alabama would not have enough funds to cover its expenses, meaning more money had to be collected or something had to be cut.
Two points are important here:
(1.) Over the last decade, Alabama has made an annual habit of severe mid-year budget cuts. We call those cuts “proration,” which is a much nicer description than “the budget writers must have been out of their minds when they projected the state would collect this much revenue.”
(2.) The state services in peril aren’t free-spending utopian government programs dreamt up in Massachusetts or some other liberal state. The cuts on the table would severely limit Alabama’s ability to arrest, convict and lock up bad guys, as well as provide the barest of safety nets for the poorest Alabamians.
So, what happened? Well, nothing. The Legislature wrote and Gov. Robert Bentley signed a budget that depends on voters passing a constitutional amendment.
On Sept. 18, Alabama voters will be asked to vote on a referendum. A yes vote means Alabama will lift $437 million from a state nest egg in order to almost/kinda/sorta balance the books for the 2013 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
A no vote means the ax will land hard on prisons, Medicaid and other state functions. No kidding — the language on the ballot threatens “the mass release of prisoners” unless we do what Bentley and the Legislature want.
Talk about buck-passing. Montgomery has made quite the offer to the state’s voters. Take money from the Alabama Trust Fund or face the consequence of thousands of convicts getting out of prison early to roam your streets.
Listen to any governor on the national stage long enough and you’re bound to hear something like this: “Unlike the out-of-control federal government, we have to write a balanced budget in my state.”
Well, sure. In Alabama, the governor and Legislature are required to write a balanced budget — actually two, because we have an Education Trust Fund and a General Fund.
For much of Alabama’s history, the state passed budgets during hard economic times that were balanced only in the most generous sense of the word. The income estimations were mostly fiction, the sort of wishful thinking that invariably gets you in trouble.
This year is no exception. In fact, it may be in a category all its own. Call it the Godfather Budget; we, the voters,have been made an offer we can’t refuse. Wink, wink.
So, what happens if the budget isn’t balanced? It’s difficult to find any realistic means to punish budgetary scofflaws. In fact, the only person who faces punishment for deficit financing is the state’s treasurer, someone who has no role in the writing of the budget. The current treasurer, Young Boozer, could be fined $5,000 and/or serve two years in prison for writing a hot check.
Of course, Boozer’s saving grace could be that if things ever got that dire, there wouldn’t be any money for the prisons to keep him locked up.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.