Governor Bentley Says State Faces Budget Crisis

Charles J. Dean | cdean@al.com By Charles J. Dean
MONTGOMERY, Alabama – Every time Gov. Robert Bentley talks about a looming budget crisis facing the state in 2015 he says all options will be on the table to fix it when the Legislature meets in March.

Except the governor, who is also a candidate for reelection, does not really mean "all options" are on the table. The option not on the table for the Republican governor or the Republican-dominated Legislature is tax increases.
That is hardly a surprising position for Republicans in a deep red state. But what always provokes a bit of head scratching is Bentley's view that a deficit some estimates put at $200 million in the state's General Fund budget will not be fixed without "new" revenue. "...Governor you said you have cut and cut and you've streamlined. Don't you need additional money, new money from some source?" I asked Bentley last week. His answer was yes. "We are going to need additional revenue, yes. But I don't know where that is yet. But I do not support tax increases."
Bentley's stock answer on the campaign trail to where new money might come from is to say that a group of key state leaders are studying that very question and he expects them to make recommendations to him in the next few months.

"I really have not been given any recommendations yet. I'm waiting," said Bentley last week after speaking to a meeting of retired state workers worried that budget problems will result in higher health insurance costs and threatened pensions. "I'm sure there will be many, many recommendations that we will look at but I haven't been given those yet. I hope to be given those over the next couple of months," added the governor. That means don't expect to hear anything specific about budget fixes until after the Nov. 4 election.

There have been hints about some of the possible options that could come Bentley's way. Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the leader of the senate and one of those looking at ways to fix the budget, has talked about efforts to remove so-called "earmarks" on some state dollars. Earmarks designate by law some streams of tax revenue for specific purposes, most especially for public schools and colleges. Another possible option Marsh has mentioned includes combining the state's two budgets, one that goes to pay for education needs and the general fund budget which pays for everything else.

It is that budget that is in crisis.

Another option might include elimination of some tax deductions and exemptions. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said none of those possible solutions will be easy to muster enough votes in the Legislature despite the fact the GOP holds solid majorities in both houses of the body.


"When you are talking about eliminating earmarks, especially those that go to support education and eliminating some tax deductions and exemptions, you are talking about doing things that will likely results in a firestorm," said Ward. "Agricultural interests, forestry interests, public schools, universities, businesses both big and small all have earmarks, deductions and exemptions. You can expect a heck of a fight."

Ward said he appreciates that the work of trying to figure out solutions to the general fund woes is hard and take time. Still Ward said he wished that the recommendations could be made before the election or at least there were more discussion of what the possible solutions are.

"We are facing serious problems, especially funding prisons and Medicaid which eat up sixty-five percent of the general fund," said Ward. "I think we need to discuss this with voters and I appreciate it that the governor is at least pointing out we have a serious problem. But I think we need to go beyond that and talk about what the solutions might be because none of them will be easy."

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