Budgets await Riley#039;s signature

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 3, 2003

The Alabama Legislature approved budgets Thursday for the Education Trust Fund and the General Trust Fund, with projected layoffs for state employees and cuts to public schools, including a lack of funding for new textbooks. Much of Governor Bob Riley's original proposal for the budgets following the tax referendum defeat of Sept. 9, including cuts to both funds, has mostly remained intact for the most part.

The House approved of a $1.2 billion general budget, while the Senate gave final approval to a $4.2 billion education budget.

The education budget excluded all money for legislators to distribute to special projects, despite some lawmakers' determination to have an amendment approving such projects' expenses. With the passage of the budget, no teachers are scheduled to lose their jobs. Textbook funding will be cut from $42 million to $5.2 million, though Riley's original proposal didn't include any funds for texts. The amount for textbooks will be sufficient to fund workbooks for students in kindergarten through the second grade. Most non-state agencies, including museums and children's hospitals will be restored to 25 percent of the amount of funds for FY 2003, and funding for private colleges and universities will be restored to 50 percent. Public universities will receive the same amount they received this year. The Alabama Student Grant program, which gives tuition assistance to Alabama students attending private colleges in the state, will be cut from $5.3 million to $1.8 million. A student receiving $600 per year would get one-third that amount. Also, money will not be repaid to the Rainy Day Fund, and the budget includes one-time federal grant money resulting from the federal tax cut.

Given the timetable and available revenue to pass the budgets, some legislators said they have tried to make the best of the situation. House Speaker Seth Hammett told the Associated Press the Legislature did the best they could do, given the revenue available, but he added many agencies are going to struggle because of the cuts. Senator Hank Sanders, chairman of the Senate education budget writing committee, said the Legislature tried to minimize the pain of the cuts.

Hammett said there is simply no money available for legislators to hand out.

"Although discretionary funding has certainly been beneficial to schools in our area, these funds are simply not available this year because of a severe budget shortfall," Hammett said.

Some legislators have argued over the governor having an emergency fund while they have no money for community service grants, but Hammett disagreed with the notion.

"Gover-nor Riley's emergency fund is a source of money for state agencies with unexpected financial problems," he said. "Considering the state of the economy and the anticipated tight budget for Fiscal Year 2005, it is wise to have some money set aside in this fund for emergencies."

The schools will have a tough time, said Hammett.

"Although they will suffer cutbacks, I certainly hope that no school in Alabama is forced to close because of lack of funds," he said.

The general fund will cut funds for courts, the attorney general and district attorneys by 10 percent. Other state agencies, including the governor's office and state troopers, will face 18 percent cuts. The Medicaid program will be cut by 1 percent to $220 million. Temporary revenues for state prisons will increase by 7 percent to $250 million. The mental health system will also receive an increase of 1 percent to $98 million. A total of 75 percent of funding for non-state programs will be in effect. The governor's contingency fund will be cut to $252,347 - a total of 18 percent. Like the education budget, one-time federal funds will be used for the general budget, which will not be used for the FY 2005 budget.

No legislator was content with the passage of the budgets, according to Senator Jimmy Holley.

"I can't think of any member of the Legislature who could possibly be happy with the passage of the budgets," Holley said. "The Constitution requires us to have balanced budgets. It was far less than adequate, but we were working with all the money we had."

Holley added the Senate was able to restore some money to an important program for Southeast Alabama.

"We were able to restore money to the Agricultural Department," he said.

Holley said he approved of the absence of funds for legislators to distribute for community service and educational special projects.

"I was one of the first to insist that we not be given money for special projects," he said. "Although the money is nice to have to hand to programs, money is needed more for items such as textbooks for elementary students."

The budgets await to be signed by Riley, who could veto one or both of the budgets with suggested changes.