The Alabama Legislature last week passed 2018 state budgets that once again fall short of meeting critical needs. While lawmakers avoided a repeat of last year’s General Fund (GF) crisis, which required a special session to resolve, the new budgets highlight structural flaws that will continue to hinder public services in our state until leaders and voters approve fundamental tax reform.
Medicaid dodged a bullet this year in the GF. The barebones program that underpins our entire statewide health system squeezed by with so-called level funding – the same roughly $700 million in state funds as last year – plus the second and final $105 million installment of BP oil spill settlement funds. The lack of an increase deepens concerns about the scaled-back launch of regional care organizations (RCOs), already delayed to October 1. Level funding for other GF agencies such as Mental Health, Public Health and Corrections leaves them ill-prepared for contingencies like lawsuits and outbreaks of illness.
On the Education Trust Fund (ETF) side, the picture is only slightly better. The ETF passed by the Legislature on May 18 increased funding for K-12 education by $24 million, allowing for the hiring of about 150 new, and much-needed, teachers for grades 4-6. It also increased funding by $13.2 million for Alabama’s well-regarded, but not universally available, pre-kindergarten program.
Alabama is unusual among states in that we have two major state budgets. The Education Trust Fund (ETF) supports public schools, community colleges and universities, along with a handful of public/private entities like Tuskegee University. The ETF also funds some state agencies that provide education-related services. The General Fund budget (GF) funds the rest of state government.
Alabama is also unusual in the extent to which we “earmark” our taxes, designating the purposes for which certain taxes may be spent. Our constitution earmarks most “growth” taxes – those that increase when the economy is good – to the Education Trust Fund (ETF). Examples of growth taxes are income and sales taxes. Many taxes that don’t grow with the economy are earmarked to the GF and, as a result, the GF fails to grow as the economy and the need grows over time.
The consequences of Alabama’s flawed tax and budget system are clearly visible in the new budgets. Most glaring is the Legislature’s failure to fund the state’s Medicaid program adequately. For the past two years, infusions of $105 million from the BP oil spill settlement have helped prevent massive Medicaid cuts. But this two-year boost, agreed upon during last year’s General Fund negotiations, leaves the state facing a funding cliff for a program that insures more than one in five Alabamians – mostly children, seniors and people with disabilities.
The 2018 GF Medicaid allocation of $701.4 million is still $42.2 million short of the Governor’s already inadequate funding request. At this level, Medicaid will be able to keep providing basic services, but its ability to proceed with regional care organization (RCO) reforms that would emphasize preventive care may be at risk. Alabama would give up $747 million in promised federal funds if it fails to implement RCO reforms.
Of the other GF agencies, only trial courts and the badly stressed juvenile probation officers (JPO) program received small increases ($1.3 million for the courts and $1.8 million for JPOs). But in neither case did increased funding keep pace with the increased need.
In the ETF, higher education received a $4.6 million increase, but nearly every dollar of this went to Alabama’s National Guard scholarship program. Costs for this program have grown very rapidly over recent years, restricting the Legislature’s ability to provide increases for other purposes in higher education. The 2018 ETF also provided a $26.4 million increase to Veterans Affairs for scholarships for disabled veterans, their spouses and their children. Responding to concerns about the rapidly rising costs of these scholarship programs, the Legislature passed SB315 by Senator Gerald Dial (R-Lineville), tightening scholarship eligibility and benefits. Community colleges, which provide much of the workforce development in the state, were essentially level funded, as was the Department of Commerce’s workforce development program.
The Department of Mental Health received $3.5 million more from ETF than in 2017, but this was much less than the $10.5 needed to settle the anticipated lawsuit over mental health services for low-income children. For the first time, the stretched-thin juvenile probation officers program received a small ETF appropriation of $750,000 for truancy enforcement services.
A third way in which Alabama’s budget is unusual is that the ETF’s Rolling Reserve statute has imposed an artificial cap that restricts how much can be appropriated to education, even if additional revenue is available. Funds available above that cap can be given to K-12 schools and universities for one-time infrastructure and technology expenditures. SB307 by Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur), passed on May 19, makes $15 million available to universities from the Education Technology fund and $41.3 million for K-12 for technology, buses and other infrastructure needs.
Avoiding an emergency special session to fill a budget gap is a very low bar for legislative success. Even worse is Alabama’s habit of defining “level funding” as “same dollar amount.” A better practice is to calculate a “current services budget” that keeps up with inflation and population growth. Only a bold move on tax reform can stop the steady deterioration caused by inadequate budgets year after year.