When Sen. Cam Ward proposed an anti-earmarking bill, it made sense to the many fiscal hawks in conservative-dominated Montgomery.
Alabama sets aside 91 percent of its General Fund revenue for predetermined purposes, the highest percentage in the nation and some four times the average.
That can make it difficult to weather fiscal storms, leading to indiscriminate across-the-board cuts to state services — already less well-funded than even many of the state’s Deep South neighbors — when times are lean, and puts no pressure on state agencies to justify their spending, since they know last year’s appropriations are the automatic baseline for this year’s.
So Ward introduced SB15, which would have “un-earmarked” some 15 percent of the state’s spoken-for funding, amounting to around $450 in the 2016 budget and presumably rising over time. Ward says such a move giving lawmakers more flexibility to set priorities and adjust to fluctuations in revenue, which can vary widely.
The bill also contained provisions intended to keep intact state dollars which draw down federal funding, creating a multiplier effect in revenue which most consider sacred. It also softened the potential blow to services by leaving unchanged funding for critical services.
But the bill died early on in the 2016 Legislative Session. The culprit, according to Ward? Those state agencies who draw down federal dollars and provide critical services, among others.
Veterans groups publicly opposed the bill, after which supporters somewhat scaled back their plans to overhaul the way the statehouse budgets. But behind the scenes, Ward told Alabama Today, a cavalcade of other state government interests also blocked the way for Ward’s reform.
Pushback from veterans was doubtless an obstacle, but advocates for less-than-critical spending also pushed to get their way, including interests on behalf of state parks, historical preservation, and the Department of Human Resources.
Agencies that provide mental health services and rural fire departments also balked at the changes.
Ward says business groups were on board with his effort.
“They actually liked it,” said Ward. “It’s a great issue, but it’s tough to enact.”
Ward, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he’ll continue to push to unmoor spending from arbitrary markers and revamp a budgeting process that allows lawmakers discretion over less than 10 percent of overall funding.
“It’s just a dysfunctional way to run a budget. It leaves you no way to deal with a crisis when it comes up,” said Ward.