General Fund Budget is insufficient

By Craig FordBy Craig Ford

It’s that time of year when the state legislature writes the budgets that will fund our schools and government services.

Last week, the Alabama House of Representatives passed the Education Trust Fund, which funds all things related to public education. This week, the House will turn its attention to the state’s General Fund budget, which funds all state departments, agencies, and programs not related to education.

As I have looked over the proposed budget that came out of the Senate and then the House’s Ways and Means – General Fund Committee, I can’t help but have some concerns.

One of my first concerns is the cuts to our state’s judicial system. This particular concern isn’t a partisan one. Chief Justice Roy Moore, who leads both our state’s Supreme Court and the state’s judicial system, has publicly expressed his concern that the if the budget proposed by the Senate becomes law without any additional funding for our courts, the state could have to layoff as many as 300 court employees.

Losing that many employees will not only slow down the judicial process, it will also have a large negative impact on our state’s economy. These judicial system employees are also customers. If they lose their jobs, it has the same impact as if a plant or company shuts down.

And if our judicial system slows down, could that open up grounds for convicts to claim they were denied their constitutional right to a “speedy trial?”

The judicial system is not the only area of our government where we could lose jobs. The governor and legislative leaders have made it clear that they want to eliminate government jobs, a process they call “rightsizing government.”

Perhaps a greater injustice to our state employees is that they will not be getting a long-overdue cost-of-living pay increase this year.

Traditionally, when the state provides a pay increase to educators, the state also provides a pay increase to state employees. While the education budget that passed the House includes a 2 percent pay increase for some educators (retirees and those who work in higher education were left out), there is no equal pay increase offered to state employees this year.

State employees have not had a cost-of-living pay increase since 2007. Retirees have not had one since 2006. And over the past two years, educators, state employees and retirees have had an additional 2.5 percent taken out of their paychecks. At the same time, the cost of living has increased by 7.5 percent. So educators, retirees and state employees are making about 10 percent less than they were just six years ago.

But there are many other problems with this budget other than state employees jobs and pay.

We are dangerously close to underfunding Medicaid. Last year, voters had to approve a constitutional amendment to allow the government to borrow from the Alabama Trust Fund just to avoid the Medicaid program collapsing. This year, we are on the edge of being in the same position. Why?

Along the same lines, our funding for the Department of Mental Health is also much less than it should be. Recent violent attacks in New Haven, Boston and even South Alabama have shown how important the Department of Mental Health is and how it can help avoid these kinds of attacks in the future.

Republicans in the Alabama legislature announced last week that they are bringing a resolution encouraging the Alabama Department of Mental Health to expand its services. But the Republicans have put no additional funding in the budget to allow the department to expand those services. Without additional funding, this resolution is nothing more than feel-good rhetoric without any action to address the need that exists.

Another area of concern is that this budget makes drastic cuts to the Department of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention. This department is the only entity in Alabama that tries to prevent abuse and neglect before they happen, as opposed to taking care of these children after the abuse and/or neglect occurs. In 2012, the state spent $243,788 on the Department of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention. This year, we have only budgeted $85,000, while the Senate only budgeted $50,000!

I am deeply concerned that these budgets are insufficient to meet Alabama’s needs. Yes, times are tough and we have to make some hard decisions. But are these the best decisions we could be making? Are these cuts really in the best interests of the taxpayers?

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