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Ken Hare In Depth: Alabama legislators must think they live in some other state

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

Some Alabama legislators must think they live in New York or Connecticut or some other state that has high taxes and lots of excess spending in government programs that needs to be cut.

That's what they sound like when they say they will never vote to raise taxes and that all Alabama needs to do is to cut the "fat" out of state government to continue to get by.

But they actually live in Alabama, which has one of the lowest overall tax burdens in the nation and which has never been much for funding state services, especially in such areas as health care and prisons and law enforcement.

These out-of-touch-with-reality lawmakers should have gotten a dose of the real world in recent days as agency director after agency director told them of the effects that further cuts in state programs could have on the services they can deliver to the people of Alabama.

These cuts not only will affect real people in real ways, but they could actually end up costing the state much more in the long run.

Sadly, some legislators prefer to continue to live in their make-believe world where state government spending on Medicaid and prisons and troopers is out of control and they see themselves as rescuers rushing to save taxpayers. Maybe people like them are needed in Massachusetts and New Jersey, but here in Alabama they are so off base that it is reasonable to question their grip on reality.

Gov. Robert Bentley has grasped that reality, and proposed a budget with $541 million that he says would solve the long-running shortfalls in the state's General Fund for years to come. Bentley has said that at least $260 million in new revenues are needed in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 just to get through that year without draconian cuts in programs.

But lawmakers appear to be leaning toward a budget that would slash spending to most state agencies by 16 percent or more, with "just" 3 percent cuts to Medicaid and prisons.

In the real world, here are just a few examples of what that could mean:

-- Alabama's prison system faces a number of lawsuits over prison conditions in a system that houses almost twice the number of inmates it was designed to hold, and with half the number of corrections officers it needs to guard them.

In reality, if Alabama does not increase spending on its Corrections Department, it runs a very real risk of having the federal courts order the mass release of inmates or appointing a special master to actually run the system, or both.

If the federal courts start to order improvements, the cost of the Corrections system could increase exponentially -- quite possibly by far more than simply investing a reasonable amount now to avoid federal intervention.

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said the cuts would essentially invite a federal takeover of the prison system.

Imagine the reaction of Alabamians if the Legislature's inaction leads to thousands of prisoners being released early to return to their communities. It's happened before in Alabama, and it could happen again.

If there is such a mass release of prisoners, remember your legislators.

-- That even the smaller cut in funding of 3 percent proposed for Medicaid would force the agency to cut everything from the state's program that the federal government would allow, according to State Health Officer Don Williamson. That would mean Medicaid patients in Alabama would no longer have access to eyeglasses. They would lose access to outpatient dialysis. Dying patients would no longer be able to get hospice care.

Even without this cut, Alabama already has the third lowest cost per person of any state Medicaid program. The program provides full or partial coverage for 53 percent of births, 43 percent of child health services and 60 percent of nursing home resident care in the state.

-- The end of up to 17,000 subsidized daycare slots for low-income working parents. It is inevitable that a significant number of those parents will have to stay home to care for their children, adding to the state's welfare rolls. In other words, this "savings" could end up costing as much as or more than it saves.

-- Further reductions in services to the mentally ill -- services that have been repeatedly slashed in recent years. Jim Reddoch, director of the state Department of Mental Health, warned legislators that large cuts in his budget would be akin to daring federal funders and their lawyers to take the system apart.

-- The closure of up to 15 of Alabama's popular state parks, according to park officials. This is one area in which I personally think the impact of budget cuts may be overstated, but even the closure of a half-dozen parks would mean a loss of jobs and of revenue from tourism that is crucial to many of the communities near those parks.

-- Further reductions in the number of state troopers on Alabama highways. As many as 100 state troopers could be laid off, despite the fact that the trooper force already is staffed at just 42 percent of the recommended level for Alabama. A dozen trooper posts might have to be closed, and dozens of support personnel laid off. Lines for license renewals would get even longer.

Fewer troopers on Alabama's highways would translate into more lives lost from traffic accidents caused by speeding and drunken driving.

Any Alabamian stuck on a highway late at night waiting for hours for a trooper to arrive should spend that time remembering their legislators. Any Alabamian waiting in line for hours to get their driver license renewed should remember their legislators. Any Alabamian who loses a loved one in a traffic accident should remember their legislators.

Those, Alabama Legislator, are some of the real-world impacts of the cuts you propose. Hundreds of real people -- good, hard-working Alabamians -- could lose their jobs. Local economies could suffer. Highway deaths could increase. Health care cuts could cost lives as well.

Gov. Bentley put the situation in a nutshell when the Associated Press quoted him as saying: "I know some of you don't care about food stamps, but I'm telling you: If it feeds children, you do care about it. I care about it.... You may not care about prisoners, but when you have them in your basement, you're going to care about them."

There may be programs here and there that can be cut without dire consequences. If so, cut them -- but be realistic about the savings. Frankly, I haven't seen many mergers of programs in state government that have actually saved anything like the public money they were projected to save.

There is still government waste, but the reality is that it is impossible to cut all waste out of any large organization, and that includes federal, state and local governments -- and churches and businesses. The reality also is that even if you could cut all waste, the savings wouldn't be enough to offset what Alabama needs to provide basic services to its citizens.

So when Alabamians hear a politician rave about waste and cutting taxes, they should remember two real-world, unassailable facts: Alabama already is among the lowest handful of states in the amount of state and local taxes its residents pay, and Alabama already provides some of the more meager services for its residents of any state.

So get a grip on reality, Alabama Legislator. You don't represent New York or New Jersey or Massachusetts, so stop acting and talking like you do.

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Ken Hare is a long-time newspaper editor and editorial writer who now writes a regular column for wsfa.com. Contact him at khare@wsfa.com.

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