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State Rep. McCampbell sees dire budget future

“You get a lot of emotions tied up in this job,” said Alabama House of Representatives member A.J. McCampbell, and this year, those emotions will likely be running higher than ever before.

Budget hearings at the state level for the coming fiscal year 2009-10, begin Monday.

The picture is already looking bleak, matching the national outlook for the country. McCampbell said this fiscal year’s budget is worrisome, but the following year is going to be of far greater concern.

“We have some real economic problems nationally, at the state level and locally,” he said. “Any pet projects will take a huge back seat. Our focus this year is going to be just surviving. We aren’t going to have the money to fund our needs.”

The approved state general fund was just over $2 billion for the ’09 fiscal year and the Education Trust Fund stands at just over $6.3 billion.

McCampbell said the budget hearings planned for next week will be even more revealing.

“Some agencies may end up laying people off this year just to get to the end of the year,” he said. “The prospects for ’09-10 look even worse. The reality is that if we can put together a budget close to our actual revenues and not cause further harm, then we will have had a successful year.”

The solution, McCampbell said, is to somehow instill confidence in the public.

“Whenever you go into a defensive mode, you make hard times even harder,” he said. During tough economic times, he added, “If I have $1,000 disposable income, my reaction is to hoard the money, but if we don’t spend, the problems worsen.”

Some of those problems facing the Alabama Legislature this year revolve around a state Medicaid system that is in serious financial trouble. Even in 2007-08, the state agency, with a budget of between $300 million and $400 million annually, had to ask the Legislature for more money. Things got worse for 2008-09.

“We are running a deficit,” McCampbell said.

The prison system is underfunded as well.

“We’re housing four times the number of inmates we’re designed to handle,” McCampbell said.

The state is under a hiring freeze and McCampbell is worried about the Education Trust Fund budget, to name only a handful of trouble spots in the state. Nationally, he is concerned about the Big Three automakers.

“In times like these, I’ve heard people say we need to let the Big Three go bankrupt,” McCampbell said. “But they aren’t the only ones affected. We are all intertwined and what affects these companies also affects other businesses. Why do you think Toyota, Nissan, Honda have come out in support of the Big Three?”

As for any pet projects in any of the state’s districts, don’t count on seeing many of them bear fruit in the coming months.

The steel mill slated to be built in Epes, while it isn’t scrapped, is definitely on hold for now. Alabama Southern’s Demopolis campus had plans for a job readiness facility that will most likely be delayed for a while. Sumter County’s plans for a community correctional facility, that McCampbell said is also very “worthy of being funded,” may not see the light of day for a time because of the economy.

The Regular Legislative session for 2009 is set to begin Feb. 3. Budget Hearings are set for Monday through Thursday, Jan. 12-15.