Bob Davis: Living off borrowed money
Dec 02, 2012 | 2755 views |  0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. Photo: Associated Press/file
Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. Photo: Associated Press/file
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One of the standards used by Federal Emergency Management Agency officials to assess hurricane damage is known as the “Waffle House Index.”

A 2011 Wall Street Journal article by Valerie Bauerlein explained the FEMA index this way: “Green means the restaurant is serving a full menu, a signal that damage in an area is limited and the lights are on. Yellow means a limited menu, indicating power from a generator, at best, and low food supplies. Red means the restaurant is closed, a sign of severe damage in the area or unsafe conditions.”

There’s a certain common-sense brilliance to this. The restaurants, known for their distinctive yellow signage and serving ample portions of grease, own a well-deserved reputation for reliability.

Speaking to the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama in 2011, Sonny Perdue, ex-governor of Georgia, cited the restaurants’ customer service as an example of how state governments should operate. In short, a customer who orders, say, eggs at Waffle House can be reasonably assured he or she will quickly have a plate of eggs delivered to the table. Service will be prompt. The food will taste good. And the price will be affordable.

State government should be no different, Perdue said. The Georgia Republican must have been doing something right because Governing magazine noted the governor’s “business-savvy leadership skills” helped “to turn Georgia into one of the best managed states in the country.”

Despite Perdue’s 2011 encouragement at PARCA, Alabama state government still has a long way to go.

Consider that the current General Fund budget required a borrow-and-spend strategy to even come close to balancing. Without the voters’ approval on Sept. 18 to raid a state nest egg, the budget would have hit a crisis point. Even so, this deficit-financing won’t be enough for next year. The Star’s Tim Lockette reported last week that state officials expect they’ll need to come up with another $30 million to meet new federal health-insurance requirements.

Of course, this assumes the budget-writers have done a sufficient job at projecting the state’s revenue and expenses. The annual disappointment known as “proration” argues against that wish. Our mid-year corrections are the clearest sign yet that state budgets in Alabama are often more a projection of desires than a clear-eyed reconciling of money coming in and money going out. That’s because “proration” is a nicer way of saying the state is lowering the amount of money it budgeted because it has less dollars than expected.

So, we are living off borrowed money. Before that, we were balancing the books thanks to handouts from the federal government, the sort reflected in the well-known statistic that Alabama receives more than $1.60 in federal dollars for every $1 it sends to Washington. Regardless of the source, it’s not been enough to prevent massive cutbacks at Alabama courthouses, schools, public-safety departments and so on. Such state offices aren’t luxuries, by the way; they are essentials for any state that wants to ensure its residents are well-educated, healthy and protected from bad guys.

What about the PR side of state government? What does our equivalent of the big yellow Waffle House sign say? Of late, it’s told the nation and the world that Montgomery can pass the United States’ toughest immigration law without regard to (a.) the confusion it creates within local and state governments or (b.) the negative publicity it broadcasts to potential global and domestic partners in the state’s economic development.

All the while, state government is doing next to nothing to solve the crisis represented by the fact that as many as 1-in-4 Alabama adults are functionally illiterate. Then there’s insufficient attention paid to weak high school graduation rates, the obesity crisis, the growing amount of residents living in poverty or the stunningly high divorce rate.

It’s as if hungry Alabamians walked into their state government restaurant in need of eggs and coffee and were handed broken hammers and knotted fishing line instead.

Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or bdavis@annistonstar.com. Twitter: @EditorBobDavis.
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