Riley calls for reductions

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 4, 2003

There were few surprises in Gov. Bob Riley's State of the State address last night. As many predicted, the primary focus of his speech dealt with Alabama's pending economic crisis. With a projected $500 million shortfall in next year's budget, the governor proposed actions that would focus on what funds were available, cutting spending and adding no tax increases.

"I will not entertain a tax increase until we reform the policies which created the problems we face here tonight," said Riley.

Riley made several references to former Gov. Don Siegelman's administration, although never by name, but clearly laying the current budget woes, which he called "a fiscal crisis of historic proportions," at the Siegelman doorstep.

"We're going to deal with that," he said. "The years of waste and inefficiency have come to an end."

If serious cuts and changes are not made, Riley predicted stringent results, from the loss of more than 3,000 teaching jobs, 734 judicial jobs, a 38 percent reduction in mental health care, 800,000 meals for the elderly, and 66 senior centers closed.

"If we fail to change the way the state government operates, these are the harshest realities our citizens will face," said Riley "As governor, I cannot and will not let that happen."

On the immediate side of the crisis, Riley said that the administration has begun by setting the pace, cutting its staff by 30 percent. He said each state department head has been asked to cut costs at least five percent, which could save the state as much as $75 million.

Other immediate cuts planned include cutting back the number of cars in the state fleet, and going to smaller, more economic vehicles. Air travel will be severely curtailed, and all out-of-state travel for state employees has been banned, unless that matter is deemed "vital to the welfare of the state."

Riley stressed the need to bring the Reynolds lawsuit to a finish - a discrimination suit that, according to Riley, has cost the state more than $250 million so far and is costing the taxpayer as much as $500,000 a month in legal fees.

"For that amount of money, we could have paved all the streets of Alabama and Interstate 20 twice," said Riley. "This must end and it must end now."

Riley also stated that the head of the department of mental health was looking into closing and consolidating centers, a move that could save the state up to to $10 million, while others are searching the records for unpaid corporate taxes.

"It is time for us to clamp down on those who won't pay their fair share," said Riley.

Riley addressed the need to control the growth of medical costs then shifted his speech from the immediate to the long term.

"We must have fundamental reforms," said Riley, who added that the foundation must be rebuilt so Alabama would never have to face the fiscal crisis again. The first reform, he said, was that of constitutional reform, specifically, the constitutional "earmarking" of state funds, which direct the exact places state monies should go. According to Riley, approximately 90 percent of Alabama's monies are earmarked, far higher than every other state.

Riley said most states earmarked about 20 percent and that only three states earmarked more than 50 percent.

"We must be able to move the funds to where they are needed," said Riley. He said the only other option was to raise taxes and "That makes no sense."

He called the earmarking

an "archaic restriction."

Riley briefly addressed education, stressing his desire to provide every child in Alabama a "world class education." He vowed to see more of the tax dollars go directly to the classroom and not be "absorbed by a bloated bureaucracy."

Riley also addressed taxes in another way, declaring the current state income tax levels unfair to the working poor. In Alabama, taxation begins at $4,600.

"This is not just wrong," said Riley. "It is immoral."