Ken Hare in Depth: Legislative sessions stuck in repetitive cycles
MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - When you wait until the eve of the opening day of Alabama Legislature's regular session to write about it, all the obvious analogies have been taken.
One news outlet used the old Yogi Berra line to describe the coming session: "It's like deja vu all over again." Overused, but sadly accurate, with the Legislature returning today to face much the same issues it has faced in recent years -- a General Fund budget that is woefully short of funds, Medicaid and prison officials seeking additional funding, and discussions of a possible state lottery. Even having a legislative leader facing legal troubles is not at all unusual.
Another news organization conjured up the movie "Groundhog Day" for a comparison to the coming session. That's the one where actor Bill Murray's character wakes up to face the same situation, over and over, day after day. But I'm not sure this analogy holds up, because Murray's character eventually adapts and manages to break the cycle. There are few signs if the characters in the Legislature can do the same.
But there is no denying that the coverage of the session sounds all too familiar. The key issue is money -- the lack of it, the need for it, where to get it, and the likelihood that new money is not likely to be available.
Once again, legislators who are unwilling to raise new revenues face a tough task in balancing the state's General Fund budget, which covers most of the non-education functions of government.
Last year the Legislature managed to adopt a General Fund budget, but not in the regular session. It took two special sessions to adopt a budget that cut more than 4 percent from the General Fund, but protected funding for some programs, such as Medicaid and prisons.
But Medicaid officials say they need more funding to keep essential programs afloat, and a prison reform plan that lawmakers passed last year needs to be funded to be implemented.
So far, the only real proposal to address a revenue shortage is putting a state lottery on the ballot. While that would generate revenue down the road, a lottery would require a vote of the people to be implemented, and a lottery program would have to be developed. So it is not going to be a solution for the coming fiscal year's budget, which would go into effect Oct. 1.
Also, many lottery proponents would like to see the revenue used for college scholarships, which means it would have little or no impact on the General Fund budget.
Interestingly, pro-gambling lobbies are perhaps the biggest roadblock to getting a lottery on the ballot so the public can choose. Casino interests do not want to see a lottery bill approved unless it is tied to an expansion of casino gambling in the state.
With legislators shying away from tax increases to address budget problems (there were minor increases last year, but nothing that will have much lasting impact), you might think that lawmakers are responding to overwhelming opposition from their constituents to avoid tax hikes.
But new polling by the respected and independent Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama suggests that Alabamians may not be as opposed to reasonable and modest tax increases for certain purposes as some legislators would have the public believe.
The PARCA poll shows that a majority of Alabamians believe that education (69 percent), health care (64 percent), and public safety (54 percent) in the state are not adequately funded.
In addition, a majority of respondents said they would be willing to pay more in taxes to avoid cuts in education (57 percent) and in health care (58 percent), but not in public safety (47 percent).
In addition, 54 percent said the state needs more revenue to support state services.
Asked how to get that revenue, a majority (56 percent) supported making the state's income tax more progressive so that high-income individuals would pay more taxes. Several other tax measures received substantial but not majority support.
Clearly there is some backing from the public -- maybe not fat-cat campaign donors, but the general public -- for the Legislature to address the long-term budget woes the state faces.
Which brings me back to the comparison of the Legislature to the movie "Groundhog Day." In it, the Bill Murray character eventually was able to break out of the seemingly endless repetition of his existence through love. But I don't think even love has a chance to rescue the Legislature from its repetitive budget woes.
But one thing could do it -- courage, and not even physical courage, but political courage -- the courage to do what is needed without first and foremost worrying about one's political future.
Sadly, such courage is a rare commodity in Alabama politicians these days.
Ken Hare is a longtime editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at email@example.com.
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