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Early budget passage quiets end of session

The 2010 legislative session ended last week without the often seen last minute theater. Well before the last day the Legislature had done its one constitutionally mandated and most important job: passing the budgets.

While there were some notable issues creating fireworks, namely bingo and a fix for the pre-paid college tuition program, for the most part, the final days of the session were marked by its total lack of drama because of the completed budgets.

In years past, the budget work would go down to the wire because of some difficulty or another.

This year, the state faced some of the most difficult budget problems in a generation, and that may have been the reason why there was such little controversy.

As it turns out, few want to fight when there is a crisis in funding.

Economists say the country is out of the recession, but in Alabama the turnaround has yet to be felt by the average family. It has been a difficult time of belt-tightening and dollar stretching for most, and state government is no exception.

There are two state budgets, the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund, and both saw dramatic shortfalls in funding over the past three years.

The General Fund pays for things like public health and public safety, and it has lost more than ten percent of its revenue since 2008. The General Fund budget committee chairman Rep. John Knight (D-Montgomery) worked in a bipartisan manner stringing together what he could to meet the needs of state agencies.

The budget is austere, and there are programs that were cut heavily.

Public services often get derided in our state, but the people who work in areas like child protection or food inspection do vital and important jobs that affect people’s lives.

In the end, many key General Fund programs like the prison system, state troopers, and children’s insurance were spared cuts, and some did see additional funding.

The Education Trust Fund is the larger of the two state budgets, and it too has seen a dramatic decrease in revenue. Since 2008, the budget has lost more than 15 percent of its funding, a loss of $1.4 billion.

Trying to make ends meet for schools and universities was a daunting task.

The education budget chairman Rep. Richard Lindsey (D-Centre) worked with many legislators in trying to craft a budget that would preserve the education gains of the past decade and keep teachers in the classroom.

It also was an austere budget. New textbooks were eliminated, as well as classroom supplies, library funds, and technology purchases.

Lindsey said it best when he noted that it was time to get out the duct-tape to put on bookbindings to make them last just one more year.

The education budget strings together more than $600 million in one-time funding, doing things like using a bond issue to buy and maintain buses.

However, the education budget does one remarkable thing—it prevents teacher layoffs. In a time when almost every state is letting teachers go, this is a remarkable achievement.

The two state budgets are an example of making the best of a bad situation.

The proof is that the two budgets passed unanimously, and not one legislator dissented in the House or Senate. Moreover, there was no rancor or major disagreement throughout the entire budget process, leading to their early passage.

Not everything during the session went as smoothly. The controversies over things that did not pass like bingo will still rage on.

Yet this year, in a time when real problems are abundant, the all-important budgets were addressed in a forthright manner and solutions were found.

Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County. His column appears each Wednesday.