The September 18th referendum is not about the state being short of money. It is about a budget process that lacks accountability and is not flexible enough to meet today's needs.
Only a portion of the people's money collected by the state is budgeted by the legislature. The treasury has the funds needed for the essential functions of government, but those dollars cannot be used where they are needed most. Over the last century, special interest groups have used the political process to enact laws and constitutional amendments that earmark or pigeon hole the majority of the people's money so that those dollars can only be used for what that special interest group wants and nothing else. Alabamians were told that earmarking would keep frivolous politicians from wasting the money on other things. It has been effective, but over the decades, priorities and needs do have a tendency to change. More of Alabama's budget is constrained by earmarks than any other state.
Government should have enough money to provide essential services, but revenue beyond that level causes government to become bloated, wasteful, and inefficient. Proration and recent across the board reductions and are touted as reasons to vote yes on the 18th, but sweeping blind cuts do not necessarily improve the efficiency of any operation. Efficiency and better service result from a complete and thoughtful overhaul that examines and addresses the underlying problems and processes. A long list of wasteful spending and needed reforms could be listed here, but lets keep it very simple. As long as legislators have discretionary money to use for photo-ops and reelection efforts in their districts, we are not in financial crisis. Shouldn't those millions be used to "save Medicaid" and "keep Alabama working" before the trust fund is hit?
We have tried this budgetary band aid solution before. In November of 2008 the people approved a drawdown on the trust fund to prop up the state budgets. After that raid and bailout, the pressure to reform the system was relieved, and there was no effort to correct the problems in spending, waste, and fraud. At least in 2008, there was a provision to pay the borrowed funds back; a provision that this year's amendment seeks to avoid. Many people warned that the 2008 drawdown would simply pave the way for the legislature attempt to drawdown the fund again in later years instead of addressing the budgetary issues. This year, thousands of people will damage the future of those who come after them by voting to raid the trust fund again. Many will do so because they have been scared into it by employers and elected officials. Others will do it because they think the earmarking problem will never be addressed, and another raid keeps their special interest alive for another day. Some legislators will do so because it makes their political lives easier.
We must revitalize how state government and its budget works. The annual budget debate should be a lively and sometimes raucous discussion of the proper role of government and its spending priorities. Earmarking has made it easy for elected officials to hide from responsibility.
I have been in the meetings where innovative solutions have been discussed and seen legislators balk because a special interest group might see a restriction in "their" money; or because a possible opponent will say they are against children, the poor, the elderly, the sick, or all of the above. We need to send a message to Montgomery, and let those who are afraid of tough decisions know that we elected them to lead. Let's not put this challenge off on future generations. If common sense decisions cause legislators to be voted out, all is lost anyway.
The mass release of prisoners from Alabama prisons does not have to occur. Critical health services for Alabama children, the elderly, and mothers do not have to be lost, and the world will not end if the referendum fails. We can provide a government that serves the people. We can protect those who are unable to take care of themselves. We can do both and ensure that your children benefit from a robust trust fund. It just takes leadership and resolve.
Imagine reinventing state government. It is a big mountain to climb, but we can do it together. We can hold elected officials accountable. We can encourage and remind our legislators that we put them in office to repair the system, not perpetuate it. We can choose a new path for our future, and we can get started by voting NO on September 18.