Budgetary issues continue to demand the attention of Alabama’s state government; you don’t have to look any further than the pages of nearly every newspaper in the state to know that fear sells newspapers and protects political turf. They have been littered with warnings of the impending “draconian” cuts, and the numbers of Alabamians who will surely have to do without vital government services under proposed state budgets.
Governments generally refuse to voluntarily shrink themselves. To avoid revenue shortfalls, Congress votes to raise the debt ceiling so that the federal government can borrow more money from the Federal Reserve or foreign nations such as China. States, including Alabama, do not have this option. Since the fiscal pains of the Great Recession began, Alabama’s lawmakers have been depending on bond sales, federal stimulus money, and oil royalties to suture the ever-widening gap between the state’s revenues and expenditures.
Now it’s 2012, and these additional sources of revenue have dried up or are insufficient to meet the demands created by state spending. Feeling the pressure of his pledge not to increase Alabamians’ tax burden, Governor Bentley asked every state agency, including Medicaid, the Department of Human Resources, and the Department of Mental Health to show him what a 25% across-the-board cut would look like in their agency.
Keep in mind that Governor Bentley was not ordering a 25% cut; he simply issued a request for feedback from state agency directors on what, if anything, their agencies could possibly cut as a way to reduce the burden on taxpayers. What he got in response was an indignant display of bad faith. Instead of respectfully and thoughtfully responding to Governor Bentley’s request, many agencies went to the press with how catastrophic such cuts would be to their budget. Instead of researching to find reasonable cuts in administrative or other operating costs, they all proposed doomsday scenarios: no more Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), no more support for children, less help for the mentally ill, and Medicaid slashed to the bone.
The outraged and response of these state agencies not only undermined Governor Bentley’s intentions, it also falls flat with Alabama taxpayers who have had to trim their family budgets to make ends meet.
Alabama has a rare opportunity to significantly improve the efficiency and fiscal responsibility of state government during these lean economic times. No one disagrees with the fact that compared to previous years’ budgets every state agency is facing budget shortfalls that will limit the services state agencies can provide. But, we should not let fear-mongering and turf protection by bureaucrats scare us away from making true, productive, and needed reductions in government that result in better stewardship of Alabama taxpayers’ dollars and more efficient provision of services.
Despite the cuts that have already been made and are being felt by some citizens, Alabama is far from a paragon of responsible and efficient government. Analysis of various agencies has found opportunities for other savings through reforms as basic as payroll and timekeeping system changes. Additionally, consolidating state programs to improve efficiency and reduce operating costs without compromising productivity and raising revenue through the sale of capital assets owned by state agencies produce further savings.
In 2010, Alabamians elected an overwhelmingly conservative Legislature, which ran on a platform of reducing the size and scope of government. Let’s hold them to their promises by requiring that, before a budget for fiscal year 2013 is passed and signed, it includes the fiscal restraint our elected officials promised the people of Alabama.