State had to stretch budget to find revenue

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 27, 2004

The Education Budget passed by the Legislature in the just completed Regular Session was the largest in the state’s history, $4.5 billion. It fully funds teachers’ benefits including the absorption of the gigantic $70 million increased cost of health insurance for teachers and support personnel. It restores funding for libraries, fully funds textbooks, and expands the state’s reading program which Governor Riley champions.

State School Superintendent, Joe Morton, called the fully funding of the Reading Iniative as “the crowning achievement of the budget and the session.” The Alabama Reading Initiative has proven to be very successful in improving statewide reading levels. It got 12 million this year. Governor Riley provided for and got an increase to 40 million which should allow the state to expand the program to every K-3 school within two years.

The final votes on the Education Budget in the Senate split basically along party lines with most of the Democrats supporting the Budget and most of the Republicans opposing it.

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It makes it difficult to comprehend how the state could have an increase of $250 million dollars over last year’s budget when every politician in Montgomery was lamenting the dismal financial straits facing state government. It looks like they may have been crying wolf. It’s no wonder people don’t believe there is a budget crisis in Montgomery. The Legislature found enough money to give themselves 12 million dollars in pork money to distribute however they please in their districts.

The increased growth projection in the sales and income taxes was used by the Legislature to fund the expensive final version of the Education Budget. Hopefully, the projections are not overly optimistic. Since the projected growth in sales tax allowed for fully funding textbooks, the Bingo for Books initiative lost a lot of its steam. It passed the Senate early in the Session but vote counting showed it lacked the support to pass the House. Since the money was not needed, it lost its momentum. It still would have had to be voted on by the entire state in November.

The state General Fund has not fared quite as well as Education. Every department has taken a cut. A band-aid approach has been taken to try to nurse it along for another year. One time money has been used to hold it together. A cigarette tax, nursing home bed tax, and oil and gas severance tax increases were used to fund Medicaid. There are several agencies that are ticking time bombs.

One of the ways that the Riley administration has attempted to balance our state General Fund Budget is through the release of low-level criminals. The Pardons and Parole Board was even expanded last year to expedite and accommodate the cost saving project.

The early release program is not a new idea just cooked up to relieve the depleted state budget problems, but is part of a larger plan that has been incubated over the past few years by the Alabama Sentencing Commission to increase community supervision of nonviolent offenders and make room for more serious criminals in the state prisons. Riley’s team moved quickly on the plan out of necessity.

It does save tons of money. In last year’s October budget Special Session at Riley’s request the Legislature not only expanded the Parole Board but also gave the agency money to hire 100 additional parole officers to supervise the influx of early parolees.

See you next week.