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Despite cuts, leaders optimistic

The regular session of the state Legislature - and the first meeting of 2004 - will start Feb. 3, and there is uncertainty whether the cuts in the Education Trust Fund and General Fund budgets will be as drastic as once anticipated as Gov. Bob Riley prepares his accountability package.

Riley estimated that $402.6 million have been cut from the budgets since he took office in 2002.

"With these cuts, we've taken the first step toward controlling spending and creating a government that is smaller and more effecient," Riley said. "Alabama's budget crisis is by no means over, but it is our responsibility to take this crisis and turn it into an opportunity - an opportunity to redefine, remake and reform government."

In addition to his work on the accountability package, the governor has unveiled a website - www.cuts.alabama.gov - to make state government spending transparent to the public.

"This web site is all part of my administration's continual efforts to make government more open, more transparent and more accountable to the people," Riley said. "By visiting this site, the people can look at the cuts made to the General Fund, they can look at cuts made to the Education Trust Fund, and they can see for themselves that the message they've sent has been heard."

For fiscal years 2003 and 2004, a total of $202,322,483 was cut from the Education Trust Fund and a total of $200,291,590 was cut from the General Fund budget.

Riley also urged Alabama lawmakers, who return for the next session of the legislature on Feb. 3, not to restore funding for non-government programs.

"When legislators return to Montgomery in 13 days, I strongly urge to resist the temptation to put funding back in for non-goverment agencies. For the first time, we now have budgets that contain zero funding for non-government agencies. We must continue to hold the line on spending," he said.

House Speaker Seth Hammett, of Andalusia, said he agrees with Riley's decision to keep funding away from non-government agencies.

"(It is important) to begin the process of getting faith restored, and that will be done through accountability," Hammett said.

Some of the cuts may not be as bad as once predicted, according to Hammett.

"We're in relatively good standing, because of the increases we're seeing from tax (returns)," he said.

There may be good news for the Education Trust Fund budget, but the General Fund budget may not fare as well off, added Hammett.

Hammett said $402 million have been cut from the two budgets, but that amount hasn't been saved.

"$364 million of that $402 million has been used to pay for other programs," he said. "The state spending is left at $38 million."

The state can't afford to use money for non-government agencies, according to Hammett.

"We've got to get back to the core function of government," he said.

The three school superintendents in Covington County are anxious to see if any changes will be made to the education budget.

"Things change fast, and until we know something (for certain) I can't speculate on any cuts," Ronnie Driver, superintendent for Covington County Schools said.

Driver added if any additional money comes into the budget he would like to see it used for textbooks and transportation.

"The growth in (filling) the budget (hole) is more than I had anticipated," he said.

Pete Kelley, superintendent of Andalusia City Schools, shared a similar sentiment on the budget.

"The growth will be better than expected," Kelley said. "We'll have to (see) what happens in the Legislature."

"If the (cuts) are less than what has been projected, we'll be happier," Opp City Schools Superintendent Dr. Tim Lull said.

Lull said he is disappointed to know many teachers may not get tenure.

"Teachers who have worked 20 years could be without a job," he said. "Some of the people who voted 'no' to the tax package may have neighbors without jobs (with some of the cuts). Welcome to Alabama education."