Some Alabama politicians still don’t get it

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 5, 2004

After listening to Gov. Bob Riley’s State of the State address and the Democratic response from Rep. Ken Guin, I realized that some members of our state government must really be hard of hearing.

To his credit, Riley spoke about bringing accountability to state government and, in the process, cutting state spending.

He is right to make accountability the top priority and, reflecting that intent, his package does call for requiring performance-based budgeting for every agency and department of state government. Unfortunately, though, his outline for accountability omitted the other two key components of promoting accountability – basing budgets on prior-year revenues and calling for a tax and expenditure limitation amendment bill.

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There is nothing wrong with the other various reforms that the governor proposed.

In fact, reforming teacher tenure laws, reducing the number of paid holidays for state employees, banning “pass through pork” and PAC-to-PAC transfers are all much-needed reforms.

The problem is that these reforms are not nearly enough.

Nor are the spending cuts.

Real accountability will not be achieved for the long term by cutting spending; that can only be achieved by implementing reforms that control spending.

That’s why basing budgets on prior-year revenues and limiting spending increases are so important.

The state can cut spending now in order to get through a revenue crunch, but when the money starts coming in again, unless there have been some real reforms put in place, the state will once again spend itself into trouble.

The only way to break the spending habit is to force the state to live within its means by requiring the Legislature to:

limit its spending to only what has actually been collected (basing budgets on prior- year revenues);

limit the amount that it can increase spending each year (tax and expenditure limitation amendment); and

Mandate that every state agency base its budgets on clearly defined and measurable objectives (performance based budgets).

Again, to his credit, Gov. Riley is attempting to force the state Legislature to implement some much-needed reforms in regard to state employee health and pension benefits.

Riley is absolutely right to propose that state employees and education employees pay a greater share of their health care premiums.

Alabama cannot afford to bear the vast majority of state employee health care costs in a system that threatens to bankrupt the state if it isn’t reformed soon.

In addition, while he didn’t mention it directly, Riley is also attempting to eliminate a program that is slap in the face to hard-working Alabamians.

The Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) is an absurdly bloated cash windfall for state employees, educators and for non-state employees who work for non-state agency special interest groups, such as the AEA and the Alabama State Employees union among others, who have been allowed to join the program. In fact, Joe Reed, the number two guy at the AEA, is getting $18,281 set aside each month for his DROP benefit and will receive a lump sum payment of $1,096,860 as his “take” from the state.

Some estimates are that the cost to the state pension fund for this program could be more than $100 million per year.

The state simply cannot afford such lavish spending, especially on people who really don’t work for the state.

The people need to rally behind the governor to support his effort to eliminate the DROP program.

Though Gov. Riley’s speech stopped short on some of the critical reform issues, Ken Guin’s response speech indicated to me that there are at least some legislators who apparently have a hard time facing reality.

While Riley is focused on some real reform, apparently Guin is trying to figure out how the state can spend more of the taxpayer’s money without having to be truly accountable.

Just like the governor, Guin and his colleagues are calling for “accountability” reforms, but their package doesn’t even begin to address the problem of state spending.

In fact, they plan to increase spending without implementing the much-needed accountability measures.

Keep in mind that accountability as defined by the taxpayers is something considerably different than accountability as defined by the politicians.

From his response to Riley’s address, it seems clear that Guin does not understand that the public is tired of the politics of class envy; they are weary of the smart aleck, partisan, cheap shots; and they are really disgusted with a Legislature and state government that ignores them.

The people want real reform that makes the state government accountable to them, not phony ideas that protect the special interest groups that run the state government.

Gov. Riley is correct _ accountability reforms must come first because it is the people of this state that our elected officials are supposed to serve … not the state employees union, not the AEA or any other special interest group.

It is a shame that so many in the Legislature are tone deaf to the public’s outcries.

Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.