Stacy Column: Bright spots in the budgets, Part Two

Stacy Column: Bright spots in the budgets, Part Two

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

Last week I wrote about bright spots in the state’s education budget, which was passed and signed into law during the recently-concluded Regular Session of the Alabama Legislature. Our state is unique in that we have two separate state budgets: one for education spending and one for all the other services of state government.

The General Fund, which pays for non-education agencies and programs, could be called the less fun of the two budgets. Everybody likes to talk about more funding for education. What politician doesn’t want to brag about hiring more teachers, buying more school resources and funding programs that help children learn?

Putting more money toward prisons, mental health services, Medicaid, the court system and other non-education expenses just doesn’t have the same puppies-and-rainbows political appeal. The General Fund pays for the sometimes grubbier side of government, and putting it together has historically been a slog because the taxes and fees directed toward it haven’t been the kind that grow a lot when the economy does well.  Yet, in many ways line items in the General Fund represent some of the most essential spending the state does.

Just like with the Education Trust Fund, this year’s expected spending increases in the General Fund were scaled back a bit due to the coronavirus outbreak. In the end, lawmakers passed a $2.393 billion General Fund budget for fiscal year 2021, which amounts to an almost $171 million increase over the current fiscal year and the most the state has ever appropriated.

The General Fund started in the Senate this year, where committee Chairman Greg Albritton and fellow lawmakers had to rework much of the budget after the outbreak impacted state revenues. The bright spots were plenty, and here are a few highlights.

Mental Health

The Alabama Department of Mental Health saw an increase of $26.4 million, much of which will go to fund three new crisis centers throughout the state. The department has been working on a plan to create three 24-hour care centers that will provide crisis treatment. The locations have yet to be determined, but the idea is to make it easier for those who need care to get to a facility. Right now, all of the state’s mental health beds are located in or near Tuscaloosa. Alabama has not always had a great track record of properly funding mental health services, but this year most state leaders seemed united in making it a priority. That’s a good thing.

Public Health

An additional $35.3 million will go to the Alabama Department of Public Health in the next fiscal year covering a number of important needs, including boosting primary and rural health care, addiction prevention and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The Legislature also approved Gov. Kay Ivey’s full request of nearly half a million dollars for a new program that will investigate deaths from childbirth and pregnancy complications. AL.com’s Anna Claire Vollers has reported extensively on the state’s need to study maternal deaths. According to ADPH, the number of pregnancy related deaths in the state has increased by more than six times between 2014 and 2017. The money will fund the new Maternal Mortality Review Program, which is analyzing autopsies and medical records of women who died from childbirth complications.

Law Enforcement

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency was appropriated more than $3 million to fund a new state trooper class of at least 25 new officers. That’s only half what the governor and lawmakers had planned to do before the outbreak, but it’s a positive development that they at least found the resources to continue boosting our trooper ranks. Not long ago, Alabama faced a serious state trooper shortage, which is a major threat to public safety. The state has steadily been climbing its way out of that hole and this year’s budget, while not everything they wanted, shows lawmakers are still committed to that effort.

Prisons

The Department of Corrections will see an increase of nearly $23 million, which is a little more than half what was originally planned. Given the ongoing crowding, staffing shortages and violence within the state’s prison system and the continued threat of a lawsuit or even a takeover from the federal government, it is important for the state to demonstrate that it is serious about fixing the problem. One looming issue is the recent tiff between the governor’s office and some lawmakers about the department’s plans to contract the construction of three new state prisons. It could just be the raw feelings from a rough last week of session, but right now the two branches don’t appear to be on the same page and that could be a problem.

Rolling Reserve

When I asked a handful of legislative leaders about what bright spots they saw in the General Fund this year, nearly all pointed to a measure that wasn’t a line item at all, but rather a new law that will regulate future spending. The General Fund Rolling Reserve Act, sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, will help avoid future shortfalls by not allowing overspending in years of budget surpluses. The Education Trust Fund has had a “rolling reserve” account since 2011, which many credit with helping state schools avoid mid-year spending cuts known as proration.

Revenue Growth

Again, it isn’t a line item, but many lawmakers credit the passage of the Simplified Sellers and Use Tax with the General Fund having more revenue to work with. Back in 2015, Alabama created the Simplified Sellers Use Tax program to allow out-of-state retailers like Amazon to voluntarily remit state and local sales taxes, which helps state and local governments avoid missing out on critical revenue. It’s also a fairness issue for local retailers who have to tack on sales taxes to all their goods. The Legislature revised the program in 2018 and made sure that much of the revenue growth from online sales would be directed to the General Fund, something that would have been unheard of 15 years ago. Now, after a 2019 Supreme Court ruling, that online sales tax is required for sellers bringing in more than $250,000. Many lawmakers say the foresight of creating this program helped save the General Fund this year and will prove even more valuable to the state in the years to come.