Legislators: Budgets won’t be combined

Published 1:46 am Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Despite political chatter about the possibility of combining the state’s General Fund and education budgets, Covington County’s legislative representatives say it won’t happen.

“That’s easy,” Sen. Jimmy Holley, R-Elba, said. “Personally, I don’t think it would create any new dollars for education.

“I don’t think we should shift from one budget in need to another in need,” he said. “The General Fund has over the years not grown an awful lot. Under this administration, we have decreased general fund appropriations by over a million dollars. I believe the number of state employees has been drastically reduced.”

The state faces a shortfall in the General Fund, which funds practically all government operations except education, for fiscal 2016. Gov. Robert Bentley proposed combining the two budgets in 2012, and the proposed idea has made state news again in recent weeks. Political watchers speculate that the goal of such a move would be to use dollars from the education budget to shore up the General Fund.

“It really won’t matter as long as earmarks are in place,” Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, said. “Something like 75 to 78 percent of state funds are earmarked. We only have leeway in the budget of about 20 to 25 percent.”

The legislators made the comments in a town hall-style meeting in Opp Tuesday night.

Unlike the federal government, Alabama’s constitution requires its budgets to be balanced.

“We will continue to have a balanced budget,” Holley said. “We need to cut wasteful spending, not consolidate those two at this time.”

The two men reviewed the 2014 legislative session, and took questions about what to expect in 2015. The two governing bodies will meet in Montgomery for an organizational session on Tues., Jan. 15, 2015. Organizational sessions are held after the election cycle every four years.

The regular session will convene on Tues., March 3, 2015.

They were also questioned about problems in the state’s prison system. Tutwiler, the state’s women’s prison, has been under the microscope for overcrowding and abuse in recent months, and the whole system is so overcrowded, it is considered dangerously close to being taken over by the federal government.

Jones said it is “highly probably” the legislature will address the issue in 2015.

“That’s another one of issues to which there is no good answer,” Jones said, adding that he doesn’t think there is a single-shot answer to the problems.

“I’m not for just letting everybody out,” he said. “At same time, there are situations, when it’s not somebody who is causing physical harm to other people.

“I think it would be more responsible to address those kinds of issues,” he said, adding that work camps in Florida have been effective for a number of years.

Holley said while there have been concentrated on work release programs, most have been directed toward the male population.

”There are an abundance of things we can do with the female population,” he said. “I believe we can relieve overcrowding through work release.”

Holley and Jones also were asked about funding for state parks, and specifically how that might affect Lake Frank Jackson State Park.

“The funding is not decreasing as far as a revenue base,” Holley said. “There are earmarked funds for parks, and those are fairly consistent.”

Those include the proceeds of fishing licenses, fines, fees and penalties, he said.

In addition, he said, when the state builds a convention center in Gulf Shores, all state parks will benefit from the revenue.

“BP had committed certain dollars to the State of Alabama, which it has not yet paid, in penalties in the oil spill. Part of that is to go to building a new convention center at Gulf Shores.

“All of the profits go to conservation, and to all state parks,” he said. “Everybody has got potential to benefit from the development.”

Both Holley and Jones also praised Opp volunteers who work in the local park.

“You still have the distinction of having the best volunteer program in the entire state,” Holley said. “You’ve done well for the community by working out there, and it does not go unnoticed.”