Now it’s time for real reform

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 16, 2003

&uot;The people of Alabama have spoken loud and clear,&uot; declared Gov. Riley after he learned that 68 percent of voters rejected his $1.2 billion tax increase last Tuesday.

He went on to say that he understands that Alabamians want &uot;smaller government.&uot;

But, all of the talk out of Montgomery since the defeat of his billion dollar tax increase has been how our citizens are going to be hurt because they didn’t vote for the new tax.

Gov. Riley, Attorney General Bill Pryor and Superintendent of Education Ed Richardson have all weighed in on how bad things are now going to be.

Riley talks about releasing prisoners and cutting state troopers while Pryor says, &uot;People should buy home alarms and handguns or take other steps to protect themselves.&uot;

How bizarre. One must ask why Alabama’s chief executive officer and chief law enforcement officer are going out of their way to scare the people of Alabama.

Dr. Richardson says there will be teacher layoffs, no new textbooks and no new computers. Never is there a mention of streamlining the bureaucracy at the State Department of Education where the budget last year was nearly $78 million.

Not only are we not hearing about efforts to streamline the DOE, but we’re also not hearing from anyone on cutting the bureaucracy in Montgomery or making government more efficient and responsive.

Not one word has been said about streamlining government.

Not one word has been said about consolidating agencies, colleges or schools. We are past due for taking on the status quo.

In Alabama, we have 16 separate colleges and universities and the overhead for running these institutions of higher learning is staggering.

However, if you look to the south of us, in Florida, you will find only 11 colleges and universities, and their population is more than four times that of Alabama.

It is time to reform spending on higher education in Alabama by consolidating some of our colleges and universities, but you don’t hear anything like that coming out of Montgomery.

We really don’t have to reinvent the wheel to find ways to save taxpayer money in Alabama. Just look at other states like Texas and Virginia and see how they have responded to budget woes in their states. They have gone to the real root of the problem &045; reforming government &045; and in Alabama the subject is not even brought up.

One example of what Texas has done in restructuring government is the consolidation of some of its agencies and thereby eliminating duplicative administrative systems and overhead. Just this summer, the Texas legislature approved the consolidation of several separate agencies that deal with health and welfare issues.

Texas taxpayers will save nearly $80 million annually as a result of the consolidation of the Departments of Health and Human Services, State Health Services, Aging & Disability Services, Rehabilitative Services and Family & Protective Services.

Take Virginia, as another example, of what can be done. They eliminated a $3.4 billion budget deficit earlier this year without raising taxes.

Part of their solution included streamlining, consolidating, privatizing and outsourcing services.

Alabama could save taxpayers millions of dollars if they privatized and outsourced transportation and food services in the public school system. Other states have also saved millions of dollars when they privatized their prison systems.

Unfortunately, the teacher union and the state employee union have held these options hostage by threatening legislators with withholding campaign contributions if they should even consider such measures.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, the nation’s largest bipartisan association of state legislators, recently released a report &uot;Show Me The Money: Budget-Cutting Strategies for Cash-strapped States&uot; to assist legislators in meeting the challenges they are facing with budget deficits.

They reported that states which have been successful in overcoming budget deficits without increasing taxes have most often employed the following strategies:

* Reduce workforce costs

* Reform and modernize government

* Sale or lease government property

* Privatize and Outsource services

* Reward employees for saving money

* Reduce duplication and overlap in higher education

* Consolidate smaller agencies

Obviously, the impact of these efficiencies will not be felt immediately, but you have to begin planning for the future and not just live to get by today.

If this kind of planning had only begun in Alabama eight months ago when Bob Riley took office as governor, rather than trying to get a record tax increase from families and businesses, we could be well on our way to implementing some of these kind of reforms.

In challenging economic times such as we have today, studies have shown that most state governments will simply hunker down and make the kind of adjustments that will enable them to get through the immediate budget cycle. And that is what is taking place in Alabama right now.

Yet, other states like Texas and Virginia are responding to the current challenges proactively and creatively by streamlining government, changing the ways it conducts its business and developing a real capacity for establishing and meeting long-term goals.

It is now time for Alabama’s governor and legislature to begin taking some pro-active measures like other states have taken rather than simply slashing expenses and leaving the current failed system intact.

Gov. Riley should become a quick study of what other states have done to resolve their financial crises. If he resorts to real government reform rather than just slashing state budgets, Gov. Riley would be doing all Alabamians a real favor for generations to come.

Bill Armistead was the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in 2002 and is a former state senator from Columbiana. He can be reached at