Session begins

Published 12:34 pm Monday, February 2, 2009

Today the 2009 legislative session begins, and the work ahead will be difficult.

Our country and our state are facing the worst economic crisis in a generation. Unemployment is rising, consumer spending is faltering, and the financial crisis caused by recklessness and ignorance on Wall Street still hasn’t subsided.

The turmoil has caused an historic drop in revenue for critical services. As it stands now, there will be a billion dollar loss in education funds from last year to next year. In a span of two budgets we will see a 15 percent cut on what is spent on schools.

We made tremendous progress over the past decade in education, from expanding the Alabama Reading Initiative to every school, to reducing class sizes and improving technology. All of that is now at risk.

Every member of the Legislature knows that children only get one chance at education, and that these tough times should not rob students of the opportunity to learn. The session will be dominated by trying to balance the budget in a manner that has the least impact on classrooms.

Things are not any better for other areas of state government. Last month Gov. Riley declared a cut of 10 percent on in the General Fund, the part of the state budget that funds everything from public safety to public health, including healthcare for the elderly. The total cut is approximately $200 million, and there are estimates that the overall loss in revenue going to the General Fund could be as high as 17 percent next year.

There are some who believe cutting state employees is a good thing, and that slashing government budgets an inherent virtue. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we are forced to layoff people, that means less state troopers and more possible deaths due to accidents. If we slash budgets, then medical treatment for seniors will be curtailed and the quality of their lives may deteriorate.

State government has an important role in so many aspects of life in Alabama, from the roads we drive on to the protection of abused and neglected children. We must find a way to protect the vital services as much as we can.

Alabama has the lowest taxes in the nation. We do more with less better than any other state in the nation. Yet the hardscrabble budgeting also means that when there are tough economic times there is little fat to cut — we go straight into the bone.

In these darkest of hours there is news that help may be on the way.

The economic stimulus package proposed by the president’s administration and working its way through Congress has direct aid to the states. The current bill that passed the House would provide approximately $1 billion for Alabama education and millions more for Medicaid and other state budget priorities over the next two years.

The stimulus package does not and should not fill all of the state budget shortfalls. We have a responsibility ourselves to find the means to pay for what we expect out of state government. But federal aid during this time of economic turmoil may get us past the worst of the immediate crisis, and give us time to find alternatives to firing thousands of teachers or kicking the infirm out of nursing homes.

The stimulus package is not a done deal, and it still needs to be approved by the Senate and be signed by the president. And even with federal aid, there still has to be hard choices made in this legislative session.

It is time to get to work.