State of the state?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 4, 2003


By Stephen Stetson, The Messenger

Gov. Bob Riley spoke to one of the most crowded legislative chambers in recent memory for his State of the State address Tuesday night.

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In a 32 minute speech, Riley spoke about at length about potential consequences of the $500 million budgetary shortfall that Alabama faces, but details were sparse on possible avenues for generating new revenue. He promised to streamline government and eliminate waste, but described tax increases as a last resort.

Pike County's representatives both said that the financial picture painted by Riley was accurate, if bleak. However, both Sen. Wendell Mitchell (D - 30th district) and Rep. Alan Boothe (D - 89th district) said they wanted to hear more about Riley's specific plans for solving those monetary problems.

&uot;We are facing a fiscal crisis of historic proportions,&uot; Riley said. &uot;There will be a $500 million dollar deficit without making improvements to any programs.&uot;

Riley said the scenario could mean a $175 million deficit in the education trust fund and cutting the general fund by 20 percent and the education budget by 6 percent in order to balance the budget. He painted a picture of Alabama in the near future where high school athletics are cut, state troopers are fired, jury trials are suspended and one-half of the state's mental health facilities are closed.

&uot;He outlined and identified the problems that he inherited,&uot; Boothe said. &uot;They've accumulated over time. We need some solutions because we can no longer do business as usual.&uot;

&uot;I thought the governor painted a realistic picture about the severe problems and deficits that we are facing,&uot; Mitchell said. &uot;There may well have been a method in the madness. He may have done that to let the citizenry know how bad the problem is, so when he comes with a solution that involves taxes, they'll know what the situation is.&uot;

Taxes are something that Riley said he'd like to avoid and promised to first eliminate waste before seeking new funds from taxpayers. He said the governor's office was working with fewer employees than in previous years and he asked state department heads to look for ways to save money and eliminate inefficiencies.

&uot;I agree with his approach that we need to save all we can through cutting waste first,&uot; Mitchell said.

And if there is not $500 million in waste to eliminate and the deficit remains? Mitchell said taxes may well be proposed.

&uot;If there's a gap still remaining between that and what needs to be put in the till to meet basic services, I predict he would propose taxes,&uot; he said.

Boothe agreed that waste must be cut first.

&uot;That's a no brainer. The people expect streamlining before we ask them for more money,&uot; he said.

Still, all of Riley's plans are not designed to generate more money. In fact, one proposal may result in the state having less money.

Riley proposed lifting the ceiling on income tax on Alabama's poorest citizens. Currently, Alabamians are taxed once they begin to make $4,600 a year. Riley called such a system &uot;immoral&uot; and said it punished &uot;our working poor and elderly who are on a fixed income.&uot;

Riley did not elaborate on what the minimum taxable income level should be or whether or not additional sources will be discovered to make up for the lost tax revenue.

Boothe said he expected Riley to actually create some specific policy proposals within 30 days.

&uot;He didn't come forward with a lot of solutions. He needs a little time to get a grasp on it and he'll come forward. I've heard it could be within 30 days,&uot; he said.

Another possible scenario involves special sessions, Boothe said.

&uot;There could be special sessions within the regular session,&uot; he said. &uot;He could call one to deal with the budget, the constitution, tax reform or any particular issue.&uot;

Stephen Stetson can be reached at