Jones: GF budget fix solves problems

Published 1:56 am Saturday, September 19, 2015

Rep. Mike Jones said the budget was changing so quickly, he had to mark the versions with the times released.

Rep. Mike Jones said the budget was changing so quickly, he had to mark the versions with the times released.

It took more than six months to construct, but the $1.7 billion General Fund budget signed into law this week includes some good things, Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, said.

For months, lawmakers wrestled with how best to solve the dilemma of a $200 million revenue shortfall in the General Fund budget. This week, they approved a 25-cent per pack cigarette tax, as well as taxes on pharmacies and nursing homes to generate part of that money.

But it also got $80 million from the Education Trust Fund Budget, which both Jones and a local superintendent said won’t affect education funding this year, and could help.

The legislature moved the funds by changing the Rolling Reserve Act, which capped education spending based on a 15-year average of growth. When money came in over the average cap, it went into a Rolling Reserve Fund to protect against lean years.

This week, the legislature changed the formula, basing the cap on the best 14 of the last 15 years, and establishing that the reserve fund must maintain a 7.5 percent reserve instead of a 20 percent reserve.

Jones and others who supported the move said the state provided $50 million in new revenue for education through bills passed in the first special session, which should generate $35 to $50 million.

The combined actions should keep schools whole, supporters said.

“As school districts, we came out OK,” Opp Superintendent Michael Smithart said. “At the end of the day, we won more than we lost.”

The General Fund budget maintains current funding levels for Medicaid, Corrections, Mental Health, Human Resources, Pardons and Paroles and the state’s trial court system. Legislators also approved $16 million for reforms aimed at addressing the Alabama’s prison overcrowding crisis.

All of those were important, Jones, who spent most of the regular session working on prison reform, said.

“Prison reform is going to happen,” he said. “Mental health and the court system are level funded.”

Pardons and Paroles got more money, and Medicaid Regional Care Organizations, or RCOs, a reform initiative, were funded.

“Once that was accomplished, it was a matter of prioritizing everything else,” he said.

“We could not let prison reform fail, and if we had let the RCO investment slide out, we were giving up $1 billion plus. We could not allow our courts to shut down – too much money comes from courts to do that.”

Jones said even with moving money from the ETF, education will not be hurt this year.

“At the end of the day (because of the two bills passed in the first special session) not only did the ETF transfer not hurt current education budgets, but the Rolling Reserve was not lost, either.

“With the Rolling Reserve change, there is a huge net gain for education,” he said. “You have to see them together for it to make sense.”

While the long-term approach is good for education, he said, the General Fund is not yet fixed.

“We’ll have to come back and continue to work on it,” he said.