Ken Hare In Depth: GOP has only itself to blame for legislative failure

Ken Hare In Depth: GOP has only itself to blame for legislative failure

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The Alabama Republican Party got what it wanted five years ago when it won complete control of the State House, winning both the governor's office and a supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature.

But now that the GOP has got a hammerlock on political power in Montgomery, it has no one to blame but itself for the failure of the Legislature to actually perform its constitutional role in governing the state.

The legislative session that just ended was a debacle. There is really no other way to put it. It ended with legislators passing a General Fund budget they knew the governor would veto -- a budget even many legislators admitted they didn't like.

That means a costly special legislative session will be unavoidable.

It didn't have to be this way.

Over the next several fiscal years, legislators faced a hole of up to $700 million in the General Fund budget, which covers the non-education functions of state government. But this should have been a surprise to no one in the Legislature. The crisis over General Fund revenue has been building for years.

The Legislature has been balancing the General Fund through a combination of cuts in services and use of one-time money to cover recurring expenses (something true conservatives would not do) for several years, but most legislative observers knew the day would come when that would no longer be possible -- at least not possible without cutting services to the point that tens of thousands of Alabamians would lose critical services.

Now the day has come to deal with this issue, and so far the Republican supermajority has fallen on its collective face.

Republican lawmakers can't blame Democratic lawmakers -- the Democrats don't have the power to do anything. The Republican lawmakers can't blame Republican Gov. Robert Bentley -- he proposed a reasonable solution to the problem, but legislators chose to ignore him.

Bentley proposed $541 million in new corporate income tax and cigarette tax revenues that he said would solve the General Fund budget crisis for several years to come. His fiscal experts maintain 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.

As noted in earlier columns, here are some examples of what could happen if the GOP legislative supermajority does not get its act together:

-- 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 cuts essentially would invite a federal takeover of the prison system.

-- Even a small cut in funding for Medicaid would force the agency to cut everything from the state's program that the federal government would allow it to cut, according to State Health Officer Don Williamson. That would mean Medicaid patients in Alabama would no longer have access to eyeglasses. They could 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. The 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 several popular state parks, according to park officials.

-- 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.

If hundreds or even thousands of criminals are released early from prison by the federal courts, Alabama voters should remember their Republican legislators. If Medicaid cuts funding for grandma's nursing home care, voters should remember their Republican legislators. If the state's highway death toll goes up because of fewer troopers on the roads ... well, you get the idea.

It's time for Republicans in the Legislature to find enough political courage to adopt new taxes to solve the General Fund crisis for at least the coming year. If they are smart, they will follow the governor's advice and find enough new revenue to address the issue for several years to come. That way they won't still be wrestling with this issue when the next legislative elections roll around.

But at the very least they need to come up with $260 million in additional revenue to get through the coming fiscal year without slashing services.

That would be governing. But it remains to be seen if legislators have the will to govern, or if governing comes second in their minds to getting re-elected.


Ken Hare is a long-time newspaper editor and editorial writer who now writes a regular column for

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