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Improved revenues could assist budget process

by Minnie Lamberth

photo by Dionne Whetstone

When legislators gather Jan. 9 to convene for the 2018 regular session, they’ll enter the fourth year of a four-year term – or, in other words, an election year. During the last year of a quadrennium, says Senate Majority Leader Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, legislators usually “try to minimize the amount of conflict and maximize the amount of working together.”

Recognizing the influence of the election cycle, Reed highlights an area where the legislature would give paramount attention. “Number one, first and foremost, are going to be the budgets – the education budget as well as the general fund budget,” he says. The state’s budgets are always the top priority, but the process is expected to go easier this year.

Over his seven years in office, Reed says, “We have continuously struggled with both budgets because during that window of time Alabama as well as America has moved through the Great Recession. We’ve had very difficult circumstances related to having enough funding.” He notes that the state has cut right at a billion dollars out of the budgets during this period. In addition, “We have almost 5,000 fewer state employees than we had in 2008.”

This time around, however, legislators are seeing potential for stronger budgets, given improvements in revenue collection. “As a result, we are going to have a little bit of an easier time in trying to manage some of the budget issues,” Reed says.

House Majority Leader Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, echoes that sentiment. In his view, both the education trust fund, which supports public schools, higher education and related agencies, and the general fund, which supports non-education state functions, are going to be in pretty good shape.

“I’m excited about our education trust fund,” Ledbetter says. “The money’s where it needs to be with the economy improving, and that enables us to do some things we haven’t done in the past.”

During the last budget cycle, the legislature added around 150 schoolteachers in the state, and Reed hopes that addition continues. “If we have resource there where we can look at the potential of having additional teachers, especially math, science and special education, that’s going to be very important.” Reed notes that rural areas would be the focus of some of the growth in pre-K as well as increases in middle school teachers.

Compared to the education budget, the general fund budget has been more of a struggle in the past, Ledbetter says. But legislators had an opportunity to plan ahead. “Last year we set aside $93 million just to be fiscally responsible looking to the ’18 budget. Most of that was due to the one-time funding from the BP settlement.”

In 2015, Alabama officials announced a $2.3 billion settlement with BP Oil in response to the economic and environmental damage from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. A portion of those funds have been available to the general fund, including a distribution of $105 million to Medicaid for the current fiscal year.

Reed says carrying the $93 million forward took a lot of discipline but will help offset this coming budget. The Alabama Medicaid Agency will continue to receive a lot of discussion. The legislature is also expected to give attention to issues in the state’s prison system.

An increase in the number of state troopers is another topic of interest. The current budget added 30 new state troopers to Alabama highways. “I think there will be a move to do that again – to add additional state troopers in the coming budget if there’s additional resource there,” Reed says.

Having additional troopers on the road is important to rural Alabama, Reed says. “It’s not as much a concern in regards to having state police coverage in Birmingham or Huntsville as it is in a rural area like Fayette or Greene County.”

Among other issues, expanding broadband is a continuing concern for rural Alabamians. “I think that’s something that will come up in this session and certainly deserves a lot of debate,” Ledbetter says.

Broadband, Reed says, “may be just as important as roads and bridges and rivers and ports as we look at all of the elements that are associated with not only transferring goods and services but also transferring and managing data.”