State budget challenges ahead

By CAM WARD / Guest Columnist

The 2012 Regular Session of the Alabama Legislature began on Feb. 7. There are many issues that will be debated, but almost all of them center on one central problem — the dire straits of the General Fund Budget.

Alabama has two budgets. The reason for this strange set-up is due to former Gov. Wallace’s often-used trick of taking money from education to pay for road projects during re-election cycles.

By having two budgets, you cannot take money from education to pay for other government services without a vote of the people.

While 80 percent of state revenue goes into the Education Budget, the General Fund has the responsibility to fund the entire remainder of state government.

Medicaid and prisons represent almost half of the General Fund, and Medicaid continues to grow faster and faster every year due in large part to the federal mandates imposed on our state.

The challenge for the General Fund this year is simple — we will have to cut a startling $400 million from the $1.5 billion budget.

This will represent the largest cut in our state’s history. Services for the mentally ill, public safety, roads, and state parks will all most certainly be greatly reduced.

While some have suggested taking money from the Education Budget to shore up the General Fund, this would only gut an education system that is already faced with a fourth year of cuts. The truth is there is not a one-sentence answer to this budget problem.

The Alabama Legislature will have to get serious about a couple of issues if we are to maintain basic services.

First, we must rein in the rapidly growing costs of Medicaid. Hopefully, through reforms in service and a thorough review of waste, we can at least slow down the growth of this largest of government expenditures.

Second, real sentencing reform for first time, non-violent offenders must be considered so we can quit increasing our spending on prisons by millions a year so that this money can instead be used on programs for seniors, the mentally ill and law enforcement.

We have a lot of budget challenges ahead of us. There will be no silver bullet solution to these problems, but we must be serious in how to confront the shortfalls we have. Through conservative fiscal policies and real reform we can meet this challenge and succeed.

Cam Ward is a state senator from Alabaster.