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Pointing fingers

Former Gov. Don Siegelman must feel like he's wearing a "Kick me" sign on his back. He and his administration have taken shots lately over the vandalism of state computers, missing items in the governor's office and questionable spending in the governor's contingency fund.

Now, Siegelman is getting blamed for what Gov. Bob Riley calls a "fiscal crisis of historic proportions." Alabama Republican Party Chairman Marty Connors said after Riley's State of the State speech Tuesday that "the Siegelman administration and its leadership have left our state in complete financial disarray. This goes beyond incompetence to gross negligence."

It's Siegelman's fault, according to Connors, that the education budget has a deficit of $175 million this year, that one-time revenues of $222 million were used to shore up this year's General Fund budget, that runaway growth in employee benefits will eat away $150 million of the education budget in 2004, that Medicaid needs at least $70 million more for 2004, that Corrections needs at least $125 million more in 2004.

Siegelman, no doubt, will also be responsible for the coming plague of locusts.

If Connors wants to lay blame for the fiscal crisis, there's plenty to go around. Siegelman and his finance director, Henry Mabry, certainly deserve a hefty share. With Siegelman's blessing, Mabry played an elaborate shell game to make the financial situation during the 2002 election year look much less dire than it really was.

But there was also a stalled economy that led to lower than predicted tax collections for both the education and General Fund budgets.

Remember, too, that Siegelman couldn't have gotten the state into complete financial disarray without the Legislature's able assistance. The budget process takes two to tango, and some of those dancing up the biggest storm were none other than Connors' Republicans.

Look no farther than teacher boss Paul Hubbert's pay raise for education employees to see GOP fingerprints. Most Republicans in the House and Senate fell all over themselves to approve the raise in the budget, and the Alabama Education Association rewarded many of them with hefty campaign contributions.

Truth is, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, urged on by special-interest groups looking out for themselves, passed stupefyingly irresponsible budgets in an effort to get themselves re-elected. Unfortunately, Alabama voters re-elected too many of the culprits, many of whom earned endorsements from newspaper editorial pages.

There. Have we left anyone out?

Riley in his address to the Legislature took the right approach, urging unity among Republicans and Democrats. "To those of you in this chamber who have pledged to reach across party lines and work together for the good of our state, I thank you, and the people of Alabama thank you," he said.

It will take working together, and not playing the blame game, to find a fix for the one thing Connors got right a state government in complete financial disarray.

The Birmingham News

March 6, 2003