Brasfield: All is Not Well

  • Published: November 19, 2015
  • The County Line | By Sonny Brasfield, ACCA Executive Director | County Commission October 2015

    All is Not Well

    Sonny Brasfield web

    Sonny Brasfield

    More state services will likely be lost

    The temptation is to take a deep breath and assume that all is well.

    All is not well.

    With the close of the 2014-15 state fiscal year looming like a sledge hammer, the Alabama Legislature enacted a patchwork General Fund budget that included a net increase in revenue to a few agencies (most notably Medicaid), level funding for some, and significant cuts to others. As is usually the case, the most troubling issues have begun to surface only AFTER the budget was passed and signed by Gov. Robert Bentley.

    Any Monday-Morning-Quarterbacking of the details that allowed for the passage of a budget is completely unfair. The significant challenges faced by those with the task of filling an ever-widening hole in the state’s General Fund were doubled by the growing number of legislators who simply oppose any revenue measures – regardless of the content, context or justification.

    Over the course of three legislative sessions, Senate Budget Chair Arthur Orr and his House colleague Steve Clouse were blocked – seemingly – at every turn. The only significant new money injected into the state coffers came after a six-month-long lobbying effort that produced the passage of a 25-cent per pack cigarette tax increase – by a whopping TWO-vote margin on the House floor.

    Somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen other tax proposals were shot down in the light of day, while another 20 or so additional ideas were floated in the back rooms but did not garner enough support to even be introduced.

    Without any significant new revenue to use, the budget dilemma could have been solved – some believed – by putting all the state’s revenue, both education and general fund, into one budget pot for the Legislature to allocate. Although both Orr and Clouse would have probably accepted that approach as a stop-gap measure, such a move would have produced a host of long-term difficulties that would have probably been worse than this year’s budget shortfall.

    In addition, there was never any real chance that the education community would give up its position of strength that comes with having a separate budget and earmarked revenue. And no one, when being honest, would have expected any less.

    So, like a couple of tired lawnmower mechanics on a hot August afternoon, Orr and Clouse began trying to build an engine that would crank – and run for 12 months – from a big stack of old, discarded, rusted and unworkable parts. In the end, a budget was passed and signed into law.

    But, perhaps, the problems are just beginning.

    Here’s what I mean. In the midst of the final budget negotiations, there was a last-minute “discovery” that Medicaid actually needed $16 million in additional revenue. When this came to light – on the last day of the second special session – the extra $16 million was snatched from a host of other agencies producing a basket full of new troubles.

    It started with the announcement of the closure of several part-time drivers’ license instruction offices in rural Alabama. The decision made by the head of Alabama’s Law Enforcement Agency was a direct reaction to a $10 million cut in his agency’s budget. The outcry was loud and came from as far away as our nation’s Capital and beyond. Work is underway to reopen the offices on a more limited basis.

    A handful of State Parks are also set to close as of the time of this writing. And one can imagine the public response to this simple – and small – cost-cutting measure.

    Our partners at the Alabama Emergency Management Agency received an unexpected cut in state funding of about 20 percent. About half of this reduction will be passed down to the county emergency management programs, which must be ready to respond to the public and pick up the pieces after the next horrible event.

    At the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the state’s recycling fund was raided and the resulting money is being diverted away from local programs and used to shore up the General Fund budget in other areas.

    As we march further into the fiscal year, expect more “news” to unfold.

    From a county perspective, the most troubling trend in all these announcements is that some of the cuts are – essentially – being passed down to the local level. And that’s why we started this discussion by saying, “All is not well.”

    For example, bills were introduced in the special session to require counties to pick up expenses rightfully paid today by the state, and to prohibit the state troopers from investigating automobile accidents on county-maintained roads. Both bills died, but the simple introduction of measures like this signals a change in outlook that is troubling, at best.

    I don’t remember who gave me this advice, but years ago I was told that the most difficult part of advocating for local government is that counties are the end of the line. Projects that are passed down to the counties – without the money to fund them – either simply go away or are rescued only by the county commission being forced to close down some other program.

    The Legislature will return to work in February and another budget disaster will be on the horizon.

    All is not well.