Ken Hare In Depth: Don't expect non-performing Legislature to cu - WSFA.com Montgomery Alabama news.

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Ken Hare In Depth: Don't expect non-performing Legislature to cut pay

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

Based on recent responses to my columns on the Alabama Legislature's failure to pass a General Fund budget, it appears there is one thing lots of Alabamians could agree on: The state's legislators should have their pay slashed after they could not adopt a budget in either the regular session or the first of at least two special sessions, which costs taxpayers about $100,000 per week.

"The first, and maybe only, budget cut I propose is that each of our elected members of the House and Senate's salary be contributed to aid other, needier areas. That should get us closer to a smaller deficit and possibly provide some incentive to do what we elected them for," wrote one reader.

"I feel that since the senators and lawmakers wasted this special session and did not complete the task at hand, they should not receive pay for a job they didn't do. Why should my hard-earned tax dollars be wasted because of their incompetence?" asked another reader.

That sentiment popped up again and again in responses, and who can blame the responders? The Legislature has one major responsibility set out in state law -- to adopt budgets. Legislators failed to do so not once, but twice, making another special session mandatory before the Oct. 1 start of the state's fiscal year.

But legislative pay cuts are not going to happen. And even if they did, they would not address the real harm done by the Legislature's failure to provide leadership on the General Fund shortfall.

It won't happen because of who controls legislative pay. That's right; it's the same legislators who control whether a budget is adopted.  Does anyone really believe legislators are going to dock their own pay?

But even if they did, it wouldn't begin to address the real costs of the Legislature's repeated failures to deal with a General Fund shortfall that has been building for years.

As costly as $100,000 per week for special sessions sounds, the real costs of the Legislature's  inability to lead are not as obvious but easily would eclipse session costs.

Consider Medicaid: If the Alabama House had its way, the state's portion of the Medicaid budget would have been slashed by more than 20 percent. That almost certainly would have dropped Alabama below the threshold for meeting minimum federal standards to even operate a Medicaid program. Medicaid in Alabama provides medical coverage for one in five Alabamians, and an even greater percentage of children and elderly. The loss of the entire Medicaid program would have cost lives. It would have forced thousands of grandmothers and grandfathers out of nursing homes, causing many to close. 

But what about smaller cuts to Medicaid? Since Alabama already offers essentially the minimum program allowed by law,  even cuts of 5 percent or less would hurt. Remember, Alabama dollars are used to match federal dollars, so every dollar cut by the Legislature would mean $2 lost in federal funds.

Even these smaller reductions in Medicaid funding could mean major changes in the program. An example of hidden costs: The possible end to outpatient dialysis treatment, which means that patients would have to be admitted to a hospital for even more costly treatment.

But that does not begin to address the real hidden costs. Medicaid funding undergirds all health care in Alabama, paying for the bulk of medical costs for 20 percent of all Alabamians. Cuts to Medicaid would impact hospital operations and even how most doctors operate their practices.

William Ferniany, chief executive of the UAB Health System, said the cuts to Medicaid would impact many Alabamians not covered by the program.

He said the state Medicaid program "is a vital part of the state's health care delivery system and supports the infrastructure of hospitals, physicians, nursing homes, and pharmacies." Any loss of funding for that infrastructure could cause marginal hospitals to close, hospital services to be reduced for all patients, or costs to be passed on to paying customers.

Consider prisons: Funding cuts to the Alabama corrections system would gut the prison reforms passed by the Alabama Legislature, and possibly lead to a federal takeover of the state prison system or a mass release of inmates.

Consider mental health: Funding cuts to mental health could force a reduction in community treatment programs, pushing patients into more costly hospital care or even into local jails. Alabamians still would be paying, only through hidden costs. 

Consider reductions in social services: A major portion of this spending goes to provide daycare services for working low-income mothers. Cut that spending and many mothers would be forced to stop working to stay home with their children. Such cuts might save General Fund dollars, but would cost even more in increases in unemployment compensation. Since every dollar Alabama spends on social programs are matched by even more federal dollars, the impact of cuts would be multiplied.

And so it goes. In virtually every area of spending in the General Fund which the Legislature proposes to cut, there would be hidden costs to Alabamians -- costs which sometimes would far exceed the obvious costs.

The cost of special sessions is only one of those obvious costs, and it is an irritating one. But it is just a drop in the bucket to the real costs of this Legislature's failure to lead the state in dealing with the General Fund budget issues.

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Ken Hare was a longtime newspaper editorial page editor and editorial writer who now writes a regular column for WSFA.com. Feedback appreciated at khare@wsfa.com.

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