Craig Ford - Combining state’s budgets will only make crisis worse

June 5, 2015 chris
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It’s no secret that the state of Alabama is in a budget crisis. It’s a crisis that we’ve known for three years was coming, but our state leaders waited until the elections were over before they publicly acknowledged it or offered any solutions. There have been several solutions proposed, from more taxes to expanding gambling. However, the most recent proposed solution isn’t really a solution at all.

Last week, a committee in the State Senate passed a proposed constitutional amendment that would combine the state’s two budgets. Combining the General Fund budget and the Education Trust Fund budget into one big budget won’t solve the problem, and it certainly isn’t in the best interests of our state, despite what others might be saying.

To start with, combining the budgets would just spread the problem from the General Fund to the Education Trust Fund; it would do nothing to address the reason why the General Fund is in trouble. Similar to the way the flu spreads around an office building, putting the two budgets together will do nothing but bring the problems to a bigger arena, and would just be treating the symptoms of the illness instead of killing the disease. The General Fund’s problems will just become the Education Trust Fund’s problems.

And that is something that we – and more specifically, our children – cannot afford. Protecting the funding for our public schools and our children’s education should be one of our first priorities. Keeping the two budgets separate does exactly that. It acts like a budgetary version of a quarantine, keeping the sick budget away from the healthy one. Combining the budgets would mean that schools, and educators, would catch the General Fund budget’s “sickness” and end up in the same situation that the other government agencies are in now.

Combining the budgets could mean that if we face another crisis like this one and it were to force a government shutdown, schools would also be shutdown. As it stands now, schools are protected. We must continue to protect them.

There’s only one reason to combine the budgets: to take money from the one (i.e., education) and give it to the other (i.e., the general fund). And while Medicaid and prisons are important to our state and should be properly funded, should that funding come at the expense of our children’s education?

But not only would combining the budgets put our children’s education at risk, it wouldn’t actually solve the current budget crisis. Combining the budgets can only be done by a constitutional amendment. Constitutional amendments require a statewide vote by the people. That means the earliest this fix could go into effect would be the next budget, not this one. And even if we could combine them today, all we would be doing is shifting money around.

Taking money from one account to put in another is not actually solving the root problem. At best, we’d only be delaying the problem one more year. Next year, as costs continue to rise, we will be right back where we started. And then it wouldn’t just be the General Fund that’s in trouble; our schools would be in serious trouble, too. 

Everyone who’s ever bought groceries or paid for health insurance knows that, over time, prices on everyday essentials will continue to climb. That means the costs charged to the government will also rise. Transferring money from one budget to another isn’t going to change or stop that. The most we could hope for is that it would get the state through one more year. And in exchange for that one-year “stay of execution,” we would be putting our children’s education in jeopardy for every year thereafter.

In the end, combining the budgets is nothing more than “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Instead, we need to come up with a real solution to our budget crisis. Gimmicks won’t help. This is a serious problem and we need a serious solution.

Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.