By Steve Flowers
The first legislative session of the quadrennium convened this week. It’s no secret that the state is broke. Fiscal problems left over from the Bob Riley administration that were swept under the rug for four years are finally front and center. The chickens have come home to roost, so to speak.
The general fund was projected to be more than $260 million short of the amount needed to maintain the state’s basic operations in the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
In bygone days our perennial Gov. George Wallace, who was a New Deal progressive, would have raised taxes without any fanfare or explanation and simply moved on. He essentially controlled the executive and legislative branches. He had made the legislature an appendage of his office and would have instructed it to pass his revenue enhancement measures in short order. He then would fly out of state to continue his Don Quixote mission of running for president and ranting against scalawagging, integrating, liberal federal judges and bureaucrats.
Our current ultra-conservative legislature has taken a page from Wallace and attacked Barack Obama and passed bills against abortion and immigration that are as meaningless and unconstitutional as the countless segregationist resolutions passed by the Wallace-era legislators. However, one thing is different. Times have changed and the governor today doesn’t control the legislature. In fact, some would argue just the opposite has been true the past four years.
If Gov. Robert Bentley is interested in having a legacy of more than a likable, popular, trustworthy, caretaker governor, this week was the time to make a step in that direction. Bentley must come forward with a plan of action and work to get it accomplished. The legislature will not act on its own.
Bentley kept his cards close to his vest regarding what he would propose in his speech to the legislature Tuesday. If you read between the lines, it appears Bentley was eyeing several solutions. Closing tax loopholes granted over the years will probably be the first fix offered. Repealing the state income tax deduction for federal tax payments may be on the table. This would essentially be a tax increase for most higher income Alabamians.
There are hundreds of tax exemptions on the books. These sacred cows may be on the agenda for possible removal. The state cigarette tax could be increased. We have one of the lowest in our region. That industry probably expects to be hit.
Bentley undoubtedly will offer some plan to increase state revenue for the beleaguered general fund. He recently said, “You are either going to have to raise some revenue or you are going to have to cut to where some of the agencies couldn’t even function.” He continued by wisely saying the approach should be “simple, clear cut and reasonable.”
Recently the new Alabama Law Enforcement Agency raised the cost of a standard Alabama driver’s license from .50 to .25. If the hue and cry that was aroused around the state is any indication of the sentiment toward increased fees or taxes, then Bentley and the legislature are facing an unpleasant journey.
One possibility that won’t be included will be an increase in property tax. Bentley has stated, “Raising property taxes in Alabama is never going to happen. The people are never going to vote for that and I don’t like property taxes either.”
Bentley has shown his hand on what he will focus on in the next four years. It’s obvious that the pre-kindergarten program is dear to his heart. He wants to continue to expand the program for 4-year-olds. He believes it will change education in the state.
He also wants to focus on helping small business in Alabama. His first term placed an emphasis on larger high-profile manufacturing jobs. He wants to concentrate on small Alabama-grown businesses and will probably offer some plans to that effect to the legislature.
Being a physician, Bentley has had a prime interest in making Alabama healthier. Therefore, health care will be at the forefront of his second four-year term. He believes Alabama can make health care more affordable and accessible by emphasizing increased use of nurse practitioners and expanding telemedicine.
This column was written prior to Bentley’s State of the State address to the legislature Tuesday.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column on Alabama politics appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.