New session, same problems

Published 9:45 pm Tuesday, January 12, 2010

This week the Legislature convenes for the 2010 regular session. The difficult challenges that have been with us since the recession began in 2007 remain, and as we start the session, everyone understands that there will be some hard choices and hard work ahead.

The slumping economy has caused unprecedented budget problems. Revenue for the next year’s education budget will likely see no growth. While it is better than the steep declines we have seen, and the back-to-back years of proration that have followed, forecasts of no growth are still very much a problem.

The state income tax and state sales tax are earmarked for education and make up most of the Alabama school budget. They have both nosedived as unemployment rose and consumer demand fell. The problem has been so bad that this year we have $1.4 billion less to fund schools and higher education than we did just two years ago.

Therefore, the flat revenue as predicted means that we have a billion dollar gap to overcome. Up to this point we’ve cut everything from textbooks to transportation to balance the budgets and keep teachers in the classroom. Now it seems we’ll have to go back and cut more.

The further belt tightening could be most painful. Again, we have done just about everything imaginable except lay off teachers because our goal is to protect the classroom. We stretch where we can, and try not to eliminate the hard won progress we’ve made over the last five years.

It’s not just education that is of concern. We must look for ways to help families, many who have been hit by the sharp increase in unemployment. We must also do what we can to help Alabama businesses start hiring again. We need to find ways to balance the needs of things like Mental Health and Public Safety with the reality of faltering revenue. We need to address growing concerns on issues like quarries and water rights, roads and deteriorating bridges. The list of pressing issues is long, and our time is limited.

It certainly is one of the most important legislative sessions in a long while.

It is also the session of an election year. In the past, we have sometimes seen election-year political games played for some ill-thought partisan advantage while the Legislature meets. Just about everyone hopes this doesn’t happen this session because the problems and issues we face as a state are so grave.

It will take serious and deliberate work to find solutions, not the gamesmanship and partisan bickering that can happen in an election year.

The best outcome would be similar to what happened at the end of the last legislative session. After hard work, some tough battles, and a major effort at consensus building, we passed the state education budget unanimously. Other tough measures were also passed in a bipartisan manner. Sometimes the difficulty of a task brings out the best in all of us. Maybe we’ll see that again.

Certainly our schoolchildren deserve clear-headed and considerate deliberation. In this difficult time, state government must do what it can for people, and do it better with less. We can ask no less of ourselves as the gavel comes down in the House chamber.

Jimmy Martin is the state representative for Chilton County.