Times are hard and money is scarce, the governor said Tuesday night in his first State of the State address. The answer, he added, is sacrifice. After promising to spare a few essentials including education, Medicaid and public safety, Bentley said other state agencies could face cuts of up to 45 percent in the 2012 budget year. In a ham-fisted gesture, he put “historical sites, tourist attractions and halls of fame” in budget competition with “providing health care to low-income children and elderly or as to keeping state troopers on the road.” Surely, we can have both safe roads and attractive state parks, right?
“There were no other alternatives to make up for the hundreds of millions of dollars that just are not there,” Bentley said.
Finding new sources of revenue were not mentioned. And in that silence, Walter Lippmann’s tragic yet apt description of government leaders hovered over Tuesday’s first day of the 2011 Legislature. "With exceptions so rare that they are regarded as miracles and freaks of nature, successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men," Lippmann wrote in "The Public Philosophy." "They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle or otherwise manage to manipulate the demanding and threatening elements in their constituencies. The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good, but whether it is popular — not whether it will work well and prove itself, but whether the active talking elements like it immediately."
Speaking to Alabama lawmakers, the governor blamed the budget imbalance on “unreliable revenue projections.” A better target would have been an upside-down tax code that leans too heavily on sales taxes, a levy susceptible to the ebbs and flows of the economy. No mention was made of correcting the structural imbalance that denies real progress to Alabama.
Operating a state of 5 million people is costly. Alabama has historically done it on the cheap. It has, in fact, done so in defiance of reality. Alabama’s political mindset is based on this fiction: The essential needs of state government don’t require alignment with the costs of those needs. Wrong.
This sad fact was true before the great recession of 2008 that has hobbled Alabama’s finances along with the federal government’s and those of the other 49 states. Now in the midst of a fiscal crisis, the solutions heard thus far from Montgomery lack vision. Alabamians depending on a host of state services must sacrifice. Special interests thriving under the state’s tax code apparently will not.
When seeking inspiration to wrestle with Alabama’s daunting budget crisis, Bentley should examine his rise to the governor’s mansion.
The governor knows a thing or two about long-shots, as financing state government operations next year might best be described. A year ago, as the Republican primary field for governor had enough hopefuls to field a basketball team, Bentley wasn’t top of mind. He was a state lawmaker from Tuscaloosa with less name recognition and less money than several of his rivals.
Bentley plodded on, wielding a generally positive outlook and civil tone. That wasn’t enough, however. He realized that successful campaigning is impossible without money. He borrowed almost $2 million for his candidacy. In other words, he raised revenue in hopes of a seeking a brighter future.
We’d like to believe the governor has something like that in mind now. That Alabamians, always contemptuous of Montgomery and fearful of taxes, must be shown that we’ve slipped the budget knife past the skin and deep into bone. We’d like to hope his unnecessary saber-rattling against federal government dollars are empty gestures. We’d like to believe that he’s counting on an outcry against what will be devastating cuts in order to then lead the charge for smarter, efficient and properly financed state government.
Otherwise, Alabama should brace for Montgomery’s Big Shrug, the resigned mindset that a brighter future for the state is not worth paying for.