As I write this opinion, I am a few days removed from the final round of Alabama’s budgeting melee. It was a thorough and exhausting process and while I am not entirely satisfied with the result, I recognize that there were some solid victories in the process.
It calls to mind a quote I’ve retained for many years from my first boss of my post-college years. My recollection of the quote is that it followed the end of a tough job-related issue. That issue resolved, but leaving me only partially satisfied with the result. In short, it was not my idea of a perfect resolution, to which my boss (a wise woman from whom I learned a great deal) said, “Perfection and excellence are not the same thing”. I pondered her point then, and I have mulled over it many times since. Sometimes, the measure of the result must include a weighing of the process of getting there as a part of the overall evaluation of the outcome.
It didn’t always feel like excellence in Montgomery this year. A great deal of rhetoric flew around the halls of the Statehouse over the past ten months. There were times when the budget process was calm and well-ordered, and other times when teeth and hair were flying. Alabama already had a budget surplus but it was earmarked in such a way that there was virtually no flexibility to the budgeting process.
The biggest issue was negotiating the revision of the earmarking of funds that we often refer to as “growth revenues”, which are those existing revenue sources that go up when the economy improves. Some years ago those growth revenues were perpetually allocated only to the education budget, leaving the General Fund stagnant. This year $80 million of those funds were appropriated forever to the General Fund, which means that State Troopers, Mental Health, Medicaid, Courts, National Guard, and other important functions of essential government services will now have the benefit of a good economic year.
To do this we also ensured a strong measure of backfill to the education budget by passing a number of accountability measures to benefit education funding and unlocked some of the education budget’s reserves to allow more flexibility in education spending. The education budget actually came out ahead by almost 2:1 over the General Fund.
In the midst of the process there were constant calls for new taxes. I personally opposed those calls and continually pushed for the debate to center on budgeting reforms. In the end I voted “no” on all tax increases. But I hope that the citizens of Alabama will remember that the initial call for taxes was for over $700 million in new measures that would have impacted the wallet of every adult citizen in the state. In the end over 80% of those measures were rejected by the Republican majority. Those taxes which some of my colleagues did choose to support were amended to shore up Medicaid and will be felt by very few citizens. While some Republicans did vote for a smaller cigarette tax than the Governor wanted, they also firmly rejected an outlandish number of new and harmful taxes. I’m proud to have stood with them in saying “no” to so many new taxes.
The end result of two special legislative sessions for the citizens of this state is that the General Fund budget was passed in a manner that maintains the level of services necessary to keep the state functioning. The high point was that a measure of existing perpetual growth revenue was finally transferred to the General Fund for the first time in memory. It was only a portion of what I believe should have been transferred, but it was a victory for our General Fund agencies nonetheless. On top of that, the Republican majority still cut government spending several percentage points overall. The summation is that there was a measure of reform, a rejection of almost all of the taxes called for, un-earmarking of surplus funds, and reduced government spending. It was not perfection, but I believe the process was excellent in its transparency and effort.
Phil Williams represents Etowah, Cherokee, DeKalb and St. Clair Counties in the Alabama Senate.