Byrne, Bentley: No new taxes, cut costs

Published 12:58 am Wednesday, July 7, 2010

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama’s next governor will have to design the first state budgets without federal stimulus money, a potentially huge hole with political implications.

Republican runoff candidates Bradley Byrne and Robert Bentley say they would do it by cutting spending rather than increasing taxes, as both voted to do in 2003.

“We are not going to raise taxes. We will have to come in and make state government live within its means,” said Byrne, a former state senator and two-year college chancellor.

“I’m not going to talk about raising taxes. The worst thing you can do in an economy like ours is raise taxes,” said Bentley, a state representative and retired physician.

A pledge of no new taxes has been standard Republican campaign material for many years. But it is sometimes ignored during a tough economic period, such as 2003, when Bentley and Byrne were among the legislators who voted to send Gov. Bob Riley’s $1.2 billion tax plan to the voters for approval. It got rejected by a 2-to-1 margin.

Alabama is in another tough period reminiscent of 2003. For the last two years, the recession has caused Alabama’s tax collections to plunge and forced legislators to make budget cuts. The cuts weren’t as bad as they could have been because the state budgets for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30 and for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 were propped up with federal stimulus funds.

For the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, Alabama lawmakers are counting on $600 million in extra federal funding to balance the state’s $7 billion budgets. That extra money won’t be available for the following year’s budgets, which the next governor will have to start writing almost immediately after taking office in January. Both Bentley and Byrne say there won’t be a repeat of the 2003 tax plan.

The winner of the Republican runoff Tuesday advances to the general election Nov. 2 against the Democratic nominee, state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks. Sparks says he’s opposed to additional consumer taxes, but does advocate new taxes on gambling to help schools and Medicaid.

Bentley serves on the House committee that develops the state education budget and has firsthand experience looking for items to cut.

He said Alabama must do more to control rising costs for public employees’ benefits, including possibly requiring workers to pick up more of the expense of their health insurance and rewarding employees who pursue a healthier lifestyle that results in lower health-care costs for the state.

Bentley said another way to save on benefit costs is to look at requiring new state employees to stay on the job for 30 years instead of 25 years to draw full state retirement. “Eventually that is going to help considerably,” he said.

The Tuscaloosa physician said most non-education agencies, other than Medicaid and prisons, are likely to see budget cuts, but he’s not ready to single out any.

“If everybody works togther, we will find some savings,” he said.

For Byrne, a former member of the State Board of Education, innovation is the way to save in education.

“I favor transitioning to other types of instructional material other than textbooks. A lot of teachers are telling me they don’t want to use textbooks. They have designed their own course materials,” he said.

He also wants to look at postponing school bus purchases and requiring education employees “to pay a little more for their insurance, particularly those who are retired and not Medicare-eligible.”

Byrne said that if elected governor, he would urge the federal government to lift some regulations on the Medicaid program, particularly for testing. “Some of the federal regulations require us to do things that are more expensive than some doctors want to do,” he said.

He said the state could also save by setting up low-cost clinics for Medicaid recipients to use rather than going to the hospital emergency room for non-emergency care.

One of Byrne’s ideas wouldn’t create immediate savings, but it could curtail costs long term. He said that as chancellor, he worked with the state Department of Corrections on helping inmates get their high school equivalent degrees and job training. He wants to expand that for nonviolent offenders in hopes they will become taxpayers upon release rather than returning to prison as repeat offenders.

“We do have some success stories with prisoners who have gone through the GED program, gotten work-force skills, gotten out and never come back,” he said.

One spending measure where neither is going to hold the line is on special sessions of the Legislature.

Byrne says he would call one immediately to enact tougher ethics requirements for government officials and end what he calls “a culture of corruption around state government.”

Bentley says he would pursue ethics bills during the Legislature’s regular session, but he would have a special session during his first year to address the rising cost and declining availability of homeowners insurance for coastal residents.

“My special session is going to solve the coastal insurance problem,” he said.