Times are lean for Alabama. With a state general fund $200 million in the hole and frantic, special legislative sessions being called on at least a monthly basis ahead of the 2016 fiscal year set to begin October 1, officials are taking part in the unsavory process of deciding which services to cut with the least amount of impact on voters. Alabama’s budgetary woes have already become a late-night punchline, especially after Senator Paul Sanford of Madison County created a GoFundMe page in August to elicit alms from the public, but one look at some of the items on the assembly’s proposed $300 million chopping block should stop any giggles.
For one, budget cuts would drastically reduce the number of drivers’ license offices available for an estimated 40,000 annual new IDs and examinations. Under the proposed budget, licensing offices would receive $40 million to last year’s $55 million, closing 33 part-time, rural departments in October. Additional closures, all but 12, would occur in January, and, by March, only the four largest branches- located in Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile- would remain. “The point is we don’t want to do this,” said Secretary of Law Enforcement Spencer Collier. “We understand this is a service the public has to have. We felt we’ve done our part by examining our driver’s license function and trying to see where we could be more efficient.”
Unfortunately, 16-year-olds on long commutes might just be the tip of the iceberg. Other cuts could include the closing of every Alabama state park, the loss of the forensics lab and morgue in Huntsville (which would require bodies be transported to Montgomery), potential doubling of the cost of business permits from the Department of Environmental Management- not exactly a draw for out-of-state businesses- and further delay on reforms and added oversight for the state’s widely criticized prison system. “A cursory glance provided ample evidence of the problems facing the state and the need for action,” said Governor Robert Bentley after signing money-contingent legislation in May aimed at curbing the state’s nonviolent prisoner population. “Our state prison facilities were operating at 195 percent over design capacity and costs were rising dramatically.” Without a tenable budget for such reform, the number of incarcerated in Alabama will continue to rise.
So, what’s the sensible solution? The obvious answer is a bit of a dirty word in a red state: “taxes.” Bentley, like similar Republican governors in recent memory, got elected on a promise not to raise taxes. And, with a potential divorce scandal looming, the governor is in no position to botch his credibility with his base, not to mention the legislators whose budgets he keeps rejecting. Nevertheless, Bentley has been campaigning for a tax hike throughout the year, mostly to no avail.
The governor’s plan would eliminate state tax deductions for Social Security taxes paid, which would account for roughly half of the deficit, and would raise existing tax rates on tobacco products in addition to a new tax on e-cigarettes. “When I hear people in the Senate say there is no appetite for raising taxes, I say “of course not.”” Bentley said in August. “But there is an appetite for not closing down hospitals (referring to medical facilities whose budgets are supplemented by potentially discarded programs like Medicaid). There is an appetite for making sure children are immunized. There is an appetite for making sure we don’t fire pediatricians at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. There is an appetite for making sure we have enough troopers on the road.”
There’s the rub: how does a state whose political ethos revolves around simultaneously minimizing direct government interference in everyday life (read: taxes) and providing “down home,” neighborly care reconcile its short budget without sacrificing one of those components? How will Bentley, who was also elected on a promise to draw out-of-state jobs via low business taxes, continue to do so if this precedent is set? With the prospect of raising taxes looking more remote by the day, the public’s response to its discontinued services may be a howl that not even football season can muffle.