State GOP must deliver cutsPublished 12:00am Saturday, September 22, 2012
By GARY PALMER
The voters of Alabama have spoken and decided to give Alabama’s elected officials more time to sort out the reforms needed to put Alabama’s fiscal house in order. The message from the proponents of the Sept.18 constitutional amendment was this: taking $437.4 million ($145.8 million per year for three years) out of the ATF and cutting by more than half the oil and gas royalties that flow into the ATF was the only way to avoid certain calamity in the state of Alabama. By outspending opponents of the amendment by a factor of 10, that message was heard loud and clear.
But that was not the only message from this vote. The way some key Republican leaders in the State Legislature are interpreting the vote, the people of Alabama didn’t just vote to give the Legislature more money to avert a budget crisis, they voted to give the Legislature an opportunity to make sensible budget reforms instead of forcing across-the-board cuts had the amendment failed.
From the time the amendment passed in the last legislative session until it was approved by the voters, Republican legislative leadership consistently stated that, regardless of the outcome of the vote, they were committed to making major reforms in state government. In fact, Sen. Del Marsh, President Pro Tem of the Alabama State Senate, said he believes that this vote was really a vote of confidence from the people in support of the Republican legislative effort to eliminate millions of dollars in wasteful and inefficient spending. Sen. Marsh said that he and other Republican legislative leaders are committed to honoring that vote of confidence by making the reforms that are needed to get Alabama’s fiscal house in order.
Sen. Marsh and other legislative leaders know that millions of dollars can be saved by eliminating duplicative programs and by consolidating various agencies and commissions. For instance, one reform high on Sen. Marsh’s priority list is the consolidation of Alabama’s five public safety agencies. Consolidation of these agencies will not only improve operations, but according to Sen. Marsh, it will save Alabama taxpayers $30 to $40 million per year.
Research by the state finance office, Sen. Marsh’s efficiency task force, the Alabama Policy Institute and other groups have identified additional savings in the General Fund budget in excess of $150 million. For instance, consolidating licensing agencies and commissions will not only streamline the process of acquiring business licenses, it is estimated to save over $20 million per year. Georgia has done this and so can Alabama.
Another $10 million per year can be saved by automating time and attendance records along with allowing direct deposit instead of paying employees by paper check. Millions more can be saved by reforming vehicle management policies, expense reporting, consolidation of purchasing functions and outsourcing some services. The state could save $48 million per year just by paying its bills by electronic transfer of funds instead of mailing paper checks.
In addition, the state could offer state employees nearing retirement an early retirement option. If only 1,500 state employees accepted the early retirement option, the net savings would be over $80 million per year. Add to these savings the over $70 million earnings on the ATF that would have been likely and it becomes very evident that taking $437.4 million out of the ATF may not have been as necessary as Alabamians were led to believe.
In a post-amendment discussion, Sen. Marsh said that legislative leadership is already putting together the legislation to implement major reforms including some of the reforms above. In addition, the Legislature will be working to eliminate waste in Medicaid spending that could save close to $100 million.
Obviously, as in any vote, there were people with strong, principled positions who opposed the approval of the amendment, many of whom are part of the conservative base that Republican legislators and the governor will need to reach out to. Clearly, if they believe that the vote was not just a vote to avoid a budget crisis, but a vote of confidence in the Republican leadership’s plan for reforming state government, then they must deliver on those reforms.
Gary Palmer is president and co-founder of the Alabama Policy Institute.