‘Kitchen table’ approach to budget

By April Weaver

The mid-point of the 2015 legislative session is fast approaching, and while my fellow lawmakers and I have passed several important measures and worked to address serious problems facing our state, much work awaits us prior to adjournment.

Perhaps the most daunting task before us is addressing the shortfall in the General Fund budget, which provides appropriations for all non-education state agencies. Gov. Robert Bentley has said the deficit is as high as $700 million, while more independent analysis places it closer to $250 million. Because Alabama’s 1901 Constitution requires a balanced budget, any shortfall must be resolved either through dramatic cuts in agency funding or by locating new sources of revenue.

The chairmen of the General Fund budget committees in both houses recently released a “nuclear” spending plan that reflected reductions that must be implemented if no new revenue is identified. While state agencies averaged roughly 11 percent in spending reductions in the proposed budget, some departments would suffer much deeper cuts with the judicial system losing 20 percent of its funding, the Department of Mental Health being lowered by 23.5 percent, and the Department of Human Resources dropping by almost 30 percent.

Agencies that leverage federal funding with state matching dollars would be hit doubly. The Alabama Medicaid Agency, for example, receives two federal dollars for every one state dollar, so if the recommended $20 million reduction in state spending is implemented, the department would lose $60 million in combined overall funding. Against this dire financial backdrop, a possible federal takeover of Alabama’s prison system also looms if issues related to overcrowding, staffing and inmate care in our correctional facilities are not immediately addressed.

The budgetary issues that face us are complex, and, as a result, we must take our time and refuse to be rushed into making rash decisions. Our budget did not get into this condition overnight, and it is not going to be resolved overnight.

Bentley has proposed a $541 million tax package to reconcile the General Fund, but many of us believe that every other option must first be exhausted before new revenues can be even considered or placed on the table. We have to find every efficiency that can be implemented, and we must save every taxpayer dollar that can be saved because only then can we know exactly how much revenue might be needed.

I believe the Legislature must approach the state budget like every family approaches its household budget. We should prioritize our needs versus our wants and start cutting until our expenses meet our income. Just like families gathered around the kitchen table might have to do away with their premium channels on their cable bill to make the household budget balance, we will find ways to cut our expenses.

But, unlike families, the state has to provide life-and-death healthcare to Medicaid recipients in nursing homes, we have to keep dangerous felons away from the public, we have to maintain roads and bridges, and we have to provide a thousand other services, all of which cost money, and most of which are required by law.

The House Ways and Means General Fund Committee is holding budget hearings during which every department head will be asked to provide their absolute bottom line funding request. We are continuing to press for consolidation of more state agencies and implementing savings in manpower, overhead and other areas.

I know the media and the governor are pushing us to raise taxes, but before this Legislature asks a single taxpayer to contribute one more dime, we are going to consider every alternative first, and that takes time and patience. I am unaware of a single Republican legislator, including me, who wants to raise taxes, and we are not going to do it if we can possibly avoid it.

–April Weaver is a state representative for Chilton County in the Alabama Legislature.

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