MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The Alabama House of Representatives has passed a budget to cover the operation of non-education state agencies for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. But the way the House did it is hardly a profile in courage. It's more like a profile in timidity.
The House-passed version of the state General Fund budget would slash spending for almost all non-education functions of government, and would be devastating for programs that serve the poor, the mentally ill, and children.
It almost certainly would mean the layoffs of significant numbers of state employees, and likely would cause the state to lose tens of millions of federal dollars because there no longer would be enough state funds to provide the necessary match to draw down the federal money.
It could jeopardize the work done to reform prisons, and make federal intervention more likely.
House members knew the downside of the budget they passed, but they did it anyway. Why? Timidity. They worried less about doing what's right, and more about losing a few votes the next time they face election.
Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, who sponsored the budget legislation, was among those who said he hoped the Legislature would still approve tax increases to offset the worst effects of the budget cuts.
In other words, the House punted to the Senate, while trying to send the message that if senators had the courage to support some modest tax increases they might muster the gumption to go along with them. But some House members clearly did not want to support taxes if there was any chance the Senate would not concur.
Senate eyes gambling expansion
Meanwhile, some members of the Senate seemed to be intent on using the budget crunch as a means to expand gambling in the state.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, is pushing a proposal to allow Alabama voters to decide if they want a lottery and casino gambling.
(Please note that I wrote "lottery AND casino gambling." Under Marsh's bill, voters could not choose one or the other -- they would have to take both or get neither one.)
The legislation would allow casino-style gambling at the state's four dog tracks, essentially granting them a monopoly in perpetuity for non-Indian casino gambling. (Under federal law, Indian tribes essentially can operate the same type of gambling establishments that a state allows for non-Indian gambling.)
Alabamians should wonder why the Legislature is not considering putting up for bid the right to operate casinos, as several other states have done. This bidding process has brought in millions in up-front money for states, while still allowing high taxation on the money bet at casinos.
If Alabama is going to expand gambling, the least lawmakers should do is to maximize the revenue the state will receive.
Tobacco tax would save lives
Gov. Robert Bentley, a medical doctor, proposed a major increase in the state's tobacco tax as a way to help address the shortfall in the General Fund budget. Bentley's proposal still would have left Alabama's tobacco tax significantly below the national average among the states.
Dr. Bentley knew the higher tax would cause some people to give up smoking, but more important, it would cause many young people to avoid taking up smoking in the first place. The doctor knew that would save lives.
Meanwhile, Gov. Bentley knew that reduced tobacco use eventually would save the state millions of dollars in paying for tobacco-related health coverage -- money that could be used for other under funded health programs.
But the Alabama House shied away from the proposal by our doctor/governor, and even from a much more modest raise proposed by a fellow House member. (See "timidity," above.)
If the Legislature could find the gumption to raise tobacco taxes, legislators also should consider applying the tobacco tax to so-called "e-cigarettes" that deliver nicotine to users without tobacco.
A heating element inside the e-cigarettes heats nicotine and other liquids and flavors into a vapor, which the user inhales. Some argue that "vaping" is a healthier alternative to traditional tobacco products, but health professionals fear the practice will have serious health effects and is particularly troubling for youths.
If legislators could overcome their timidity and raise the tobacco tax, they should ensure that it applies to nicotine delivered by "vaping" as well.
Even if they don't raise the tobacco tax, extending the state's current tax to "vaping" products would make sense and keep some Alabama's youths from adopting a practice that is addicting and could prove to have serious health issues.
(For the sake of disclosure, let me note that my wife works in the smoking cessation field.)