My blog of the 2014 session fell victim to a combination of writer’s block and scheduling challenges. As I alluded to in early blog postings, the frenzied three day pace took its toll - normally we vote on Tue and Thursdays, leaving Wed open for committee meetings – this year we routinely voted Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The quickened pace required me to devote free time to reading and studying legislation as I prepared for floor votes.
The Budgets – I am a member of the General Fund Committee and feel that I am well versed in the components of that budget. As a reminder, Alabama has two budgets – the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund or ETF. I am not a member of the ETF Committee and therefore play catch-up on the ins and outs of the ETF budget. As has been reported in the media, a falling out of sorts is ongoing between the legislature and the Governor regarding the budgets – will he veto the budgets and call a special session, or will he sign them into law? I was briefed on the ongoing discussions which lead to the “compromise deal” between the governor and leadership weeks ago. The deal was suspect from the start and as such we were unable to pass the budgets until the final hours of the session last week.
The $1.8B General Fund Budget, while austere, passed the legislature with little fanfare; the problems lie with the $5.9B Education Trust Fund Budget. I voted for the General Fund Budget. I voted against the ETF, twice. The first “no” vote occurred when the budget first passed the Senate (details reported here) and forwarded to the House; the second “no” vote was when the budget came back to the Senate last week. The House made their changes - not unexpected - requiring the ETF to go to a Conference Committee. When asked why I voted against the budget, I was quoted in the media stating – “we need to prioritize our priorities”.
Prioritizing our Priorities – what do I mean by this? Well, just like with your household budget – we must identify the most important items in the budget and fund those – when revenues are flat or down we should carefully consider expanding programs and determine at what cost; not just fiscal but opportunity cost as well. I don’t think we do a very good job of that with the ETF. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of the fact that over the past four years we have passed conservative, balanced budgets. We have not gone into proration during a single budget cycle. Proration occurs when revenues fall short of predictions used during the budget process – therefore causing the governor to adjust spending; resulting in across the board budget cuts...not good. Proration was a common theme in years past, largely due to over estimating revenues.
We are not missing the mark in estimating revenue, we are missing the mark by continuing to expand programs – arguably worthwhile programs but again, at what cost. We level fund or cut programs while expanding others. In my view this is not a sound business principal and therefore I, along with several other legislators (they can speak for themselves) voted against the budget.
Did the Governor’s proposed budget submitted to the legislature back in January exploit a loophole violating the Rolling Reserve? Yes. Was it illegal? No. Did the Senate ETF Committee budget violate the rolling reserve? Yes. Was it illegal? No. Did the final version of the ETF budget violate the Rolling Reserve? Yes. Was it illegal...apparently not!
Should we have passed the Governor’s proposed budget and then work to close the loophole? Perhaps, yes. I still believe that somewhere between the Governor’s proposed budget and the legislative version sent to him is a workable budget but we must be willing to prioritize our priorities. The question remains - will we have another shot at it in 2014?
As in years past, I plan to close out the 2014 Legislative Blog with an overview of significant legislation from the session. I will continue compiling that information and post to the blog in the coming days and then return to the monthly newsletter in May.
Semper Fi - Bill