Hard choices. That’s what the governor of Alabama, along with the state Legislature have before them in 2015. By far the most pressing is the gaping hole in the General Fund budget, estimated to be around $265 million, but like a hurricane moving into the warm summer waters of the Gulf, that number is expected to balloon in size.
Gov. Bentley’s recent inauguration ceremony may have been a festive occasion, but to his credit, during his speech, and of late, he has been willing to admit we indeed face a dark and dire situation.
Unfortunately, a very popular panacea being put forward to in part address this malignant problem is the un-earmarking of state revenues dedicated for education spending in the state. The rationale given for this by various state politicians and like-minded entities is that opening up dedicated education dollars for Alabama legislators to shift as they see fit, will concomitantly help ease funding issues with the General Fund, which pays for such uncontrolled costs as Medicaid, state prisons and the court system. This is a bad idea.
Why? Because the problem is not that Alabama can’t shift around sufficient monies to the right programs or agencies, but that it doesn’t have enough money in the first place to meet all its needs. Un-earmarking education dollars would only provide a convenient source of additional revenue for the General Fund, but would not address the core problem: a lack of money.
Education in Alabama has come a long way, but still has a long way to go. Since the onset of the Great Recession in 2009, Alabama has had some of the steepest cuts in education spending than almost any other state. Yet, Alabama’s graduation rate has moved up and quite a few notable positives have happened locally as well as statewide. More has been done with less, but that’s not the recipe for long-term success.
Our political leaders have to be willing to explain to the state’s citizens that good roads, good schools, an efficient court system, well-staffed and run prisons, and other things we rightfully expect our state government to do, can’t be funded by bad ideology or wishful thinking. For some odd reason, we can understand that to get the top football coaches and assistant coaches for our major state colleges (Alabama & Auburn) takes a willingness to pay accordingly for the level of success you expect, yet when it comes to having top-notch state agencies and services, somehow these can be obtained on the cheap.
A study conducted in 2013 by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) noted that in 2011 Alabama ranked last among ALL the states in overall state and local tax revenue. It has been observed by several studies that if our legislators were to raise property taxes — just to the level of our sister state of Mississippi — the General Fund would have upwards of an additional billion dollars in revenue to work with. Yes, that’s BILLION.
But even passing legislation that says, “let’s match Mississippi,” when it comes to property taxes, (not a very tall order you would think) seems totally untenable. The low-hanging fruit option then becomes taking money from education.
Positively though, the governor doesn’t seem averse to the possibility of a state lottery or an agreement with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians that would call for the tribe paying more in state taxes in order to expand casino-like gambling in other places besides the three casinos it currently has in the state.
Regarding the latter, a lottery has proved to be very effective in surrounding states like Florida and Georgia whose lottery revenues are normally around a billion dollars a year. And with the former, expanding Poarch Creek casinos in Alabama, not only would this be beneficial for the state, but a city like Mobile could definitely benefit as a major expansion site (maybe a viable purpose for the Alabama Cruise Terminal and quite possibly more Convention Center bookings).
This is indeed a year of hard choices, but one easy choice should be to leave education dollars alone. Governor Bentley stated recently that Alabama needs to deal with its funding issues once and for all and stop kicking the can down the road. I totally concur. Increasing property taxes to settle general fund issues, allowing the people to vote on a lottery and giving permission to expand casinos in Alabama are more tenable and long-term corrective options.
Some may scoff at the likelihood of any of the above stated options being implemented. Firm in the belief that Alabama is destined to be a perpetual backwards state, proud of its stubborn resistance to change and embracing of reforms and actions that can really propel it forward. I however, maybe sometimes naively, tend to be an optimist. Things can and do change. I’m hopeful, even if by force of circumstance, the right choices will be made.