Ken Hare In Depth: Time running out for Legislature to pass budget
MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -
Time is growing short for the Alabama Legislature to pass a General Fund budget, and there appears to be little consensus on how or even whether to fill a gaping hole in the budget. So it is beginning to seem ever more likely that a special session of the Legislature will be needed.
Maybe that's not a bad thing.
Of course, it would be irresponsible for the Legislature not to pass a reasonable budget during its regular session. Thirty working days should have been plenty to get the job done. But now that lawmakers have frittered away all but eight of the meeting days in the regular session, perhaps it would be best not to rush to pass something in the closing days.
It's been said that laws are like sausages; it's best not to see them being made. In Alabama, that is especially true of laws and budgets passed in the dying days of a session, when the focus can become more on getting something passed than on the quality of what is passed.
As the end of a session draws near, sometimes legislators don't have (or don't take) the time to fully absorb -- or even read -- what they are voting on. Sometimes self-serving sections are buried in a budget by certain key lawmakers that aren't detected until it's too late.
Of course, that can and does happen earlier in a session as well, but it becomes more likely as a session's days wear down.
The problem, of course, is how to fill the hole created by the perennial slow growth in the General Fund budget, which covers prisons and Medicaid and most non-education functions of state government.
Gov. Robert Bentley has proposed a $540 million increase in taxes which he says would solve the problem with the General Fund budget not only in the coming fiscal year but for several years into the future. But Bentley has failed to gain any traction among his fellow Republicans in the Legislature for his approach.
House Republicans at one time seemed to be seriously considering a plan to increase tax revenues by about $150 million built around a 25-cent per pack increase in tobacco taxes, but even that modest hike proved too much for some Republicans.
So now the Alabama House of Representatives appears poised to vote on a bare-bones $1.6 billion budget that cuts about $200 million from state agencies, most of which are underfunded already.
"It is irresponsible, it is unworkable, and it is going to hurt Alabamians," the governor said. "I believe that anyone who votes for a budget like this is saying to the people of Alabama, 'I don't care about you.' "
He's right. Many of the state's most vulnerable citizens would be devastated by such a bare-bones budget.
But even those legislators too callous to care about the impact on lives of such a budget should recognize that it could cost the state more in the long run. For instance, cutting prison funding could invite a federal court takeover of the state's prison system. Cutting Medicaid could mean the loss of much more in federal funding. Cutting funding for state parks could negatively impact revenues from tourism on which the state currently depends.
Complicating the issue are various proposals to dramatically expand the types of gambling allowed in the state in order to bring in more revenue.
There are competing gambling proposals, but all of them are flawed.
First, no gambling expansion could be put in place in time to affect revenues for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
Second, the leading gambling proposal would not give the public a real choice in the matter. It would force voters to choose between nothing changing and instituting both a state lottery and casino-style gambling at the four additional dog tracks. Voters would not get to choose one or the other; they would have to support both or nothing at all.
Third, the proposal would go before the voters before details are worked out on how and who would manage the lottery and how much they would be paid, as well as details on how the casinos would be regulated. Voters essentially would be asked to trust legislators to work out the details later.
Finally, the state would lose out on the opportunity to place the right to open casinos out for bid. Other states have reaped millions in up-front money by requiring those who would operate casinos to bid for that right. By granting casino monopolies to the existing dog tracks, as the current proposal would do, the Legislature would be passing up potentially tens of millions of dollars in bid revenues.
(The Poarch Creek Indian Tribe, which operates electronic gambling halls in Alabama, has offered up to $250 million to get a monopoly on casino-style gambling in Alabama. It is unclear if that figure represents either a loan or an advance against future annual payments from the tribe. But it should give at least a hint of what might be garnered from placing the right to operate casinos up for bid.)
Against that background, it might not be such a bad thing for both the General Fund budget and the gambling issues to be decided in separate special sessions. That would allow legislators time to fully explore their options, and more importantly, allow the public a real opportunity for input.
It also would avoid the pitfalls that too often come with rushing through legislation in the dying days of a session.
Ken Hare is a longtime newspaper editorial page editor and editorial writer who now writes a regular column for wsfa.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org