State budget: looks like a mess; no solution in sight, say local Legislators

Full disclosure: what follows are unvarnished opinions.

Viewing Alabama’s legislative budget fight from a distance, it looks like no one’s in charge, no one knows how to solve the problem, competing formulas for producing a budget abound willy-nilly, and all the players are clueless as to how to organize the chaos and move it toward a solution that serves Alabama citizens. And there’s little detectable sense of urgency about it.

That opinion comes from having talked with the four legislators who have the largest chunks of Blount County in their districts: Sens. Clay Scofield and Shay Shelnutt and Reps. David Standridge and Randall Shedd. None of them said anything remotely like the capsule above, of course. So what did they say to result in such a statement?

What follows is a precis of how they answered a few basic questions, such as: Did you support the budget the Legislature passed and sent to Gov. Bentley – that he promptly vetoed? ( The budget slashed $200 million from the present year’s budget, a reduction of about 11 percent, portending significant cuts to state agencies and services.) What do you think will happen to Gov. Bentley’s tax plan? Do you see any signs of progress toward a budget solution? What do you think will happen in the coming weeks as the special session approaches? What’s the mood of legislators? Here are some of their answers. They are in the form of selected comments, not necessarily contiguous in time.

District 9 Sen. Clay Scofield: “I voted for the budget that went to Gov. Bentley, but I wasn’t a proponent of it. I voted for it to fulfill our constitutional obligation to produce a budget.

“Gov. Bentley’s tax increases are dead. We can’t vote to increase taxes without showing people that the money we have is managed properly. No one really brought up any taxes that were palatable. The problem with taxes is that if we enact more taxes, the government will grow into the new tax revenues available. The lottery might be palatable enough to allow people to vote on it.”

He said proposals to expand gambling don’t have support, because the money it brings to the table constitutes a danger to the state’s political system, adding that the Governor could do a deal with the Poarch Creek Indians granting them additional gambling concessions in exchange for a $250,00 “loan” to meet the shortfall this budget year.

District 17 Sen. Shay Shelnutt:“I voted for the legislative budget. We all knew it would get vetoed. I don’t know of anyone who has a solution in mind – unless you know of one. I don’t think more taxes is the answer. Unless several thousand constituents start calling their representatives and start asking to be taxed more. I know mine haven’t. I haven’t had many people from Blount County call me and tell me to vote for more taxes.

“The Marsh gambling proposal is dead. The rumor is that the Governor is going to sign an agreement with the Poarch Creeks, but that’s just a rumor at this point. If it were up to me, I would unearmark some more money and cut costs some more. I don’t think there’s going to be much change in people’s minds between now and the special session. As far as what’s yet to come, there’s no one – or not many – that really know”.

District 34 Rep. David Standridge: “I voted for the budget. I supported it because it was a way of using very limited resources efficiently. But, it’s obvious we’ve got more needs than we’ve got money to meet them.

“I’m by nature pretty optimistic, but I haven’t seen a plan yet that I think would pass. The general public wants us to make sure we’re using the resources we have wisely before we ask for any more.

“I think there will be a new revenue component of some kind to the proposal that will be made to us by the legislative leadership or by the governor.

“As far as the Governor’s proposal is concerned, I think it won’t go anywhere in its present form. It will have to change. Caucuses, task forces, and committees all continue to meet and work on things. I do know we have a problem, and I’ll listen to any reasonable proposal. I didn’t think the Governor’s or the leadership’s plans were reasonable because of the taxes they proposed.”

District 11 Rep. Randall Shedd: “I voted for the budget. It was an ugly budget. We in government have to do what all the families of Alabama have to do as they sit around the kitchen table and reduce what they have going out to match what they have coming in.”

“I still think we’ll be looking at a combination of reductions in government and some new revenue streams. If there are other sources out there that haven’t been mentioned, we haven’t turned those rocks over yet. The problem is getting anybody to agree on specifics.”

“I don’t think there’s been enough time passed yet for there to be any change in positions.There was a lot of frustration during the regular session.We need a cooling off period to give people time to recover their perspective.”

“I would not be surprised to see it take more than one special session. There’s still a lot of coming together that needs to happen. That’s just me reading the Senate and the House, and the Governor.”

Anyone see a light on the horizon?