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Budgets at top of legislator’s minds

After some of the toughest times in Alabama’s financial history, the legislature will have budgeting at the forefront of its mind as it convenes today.

“It has to be because we’ve never entered a session where we’ve had such a turndown in revenue, and it will be a challenge to make all services available with the limited funds,” said Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne.

Local Rep. Alan Boothe, D-Troy, agreed.

“Obviously I think the budgets are going to be the key issues at this time,” Boothe said.

The state operates under two separate budgets, an Education budget that funds both K-12 and universities, and a General Fund budget that encompasses all other state agencies.

In the last year, Alabama Legislators have passed education budgets that have been prorated, meaning revenues fell short of the amount promised to schools.

School systems had to come up with funding on their own to make up for those revenue losses.

The state’s General Fund budget also underwent proration last year.

Projections for the General Fund are to drop by nearly one-third, according to the Associated Press.

As the Legislature convenes this session, both Boothe and Mitchell agreed making budgets even more conservative than last year will be key priorities.

“Revenue projections we relied on last year did not turn out to be conservative enough,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s going to be a wake up call for us to try to avoid proration.”

Boothe said “thinner and leaner” are the words he’d give to this year’s session.

“There’s got to be some changes made in order for us to get out of this crutch we’re in,” Boothe said. “Those changes are going to come at reduced budgets — thinner and leaner.”

In terms of education funding, Boothe said he thinks it should be priority to keep teacher positions protected in the budgeting process.

Layoffs and furloughs for state employees are being discussed as ways of reducing the General Fund budget, as well.

A survey by the Associated Press reported 32 percent of the House and 28 percent of the Senate are in favor of this option. The House has 25 percent in opposition and 21 percent oppose in the Senate. The remainder are undecided.

Boothe and Mitchell are both part of that number that are opposed to furloughing employees.

The AP also polled legislators on other issues that may come before the legislature this session.

Both Mitchell and Boothe are in favor of supporting a bill to ban text messaging while driving, a bill that passed the House last year and failed in the Senate.

The majority of both House and Senate members also polled in favor of that position.

Constitutional amendments have also been proposed to ban electronic bingo in the state and another to make it legal but levy taxes on it.

Boothe did not say whether he would like it to be legal or not, but he said if it remains a part of Alabama, it should be taxed.

Mitchell agreed.

“We are the only state that has this type of gambling and does not reap benefit from it,” Mitchell said. “I’m in favor of collecting from existing activities.”

Another constitutional amendment is proposed to require state government to fund existing Prepaid Affordable College Tuition plans.

While neither Boothe or Mitchell would like to see the state take on the expense, both said something may have to be done to assist.

The Legislature will convene today for the first time, where it will be addressed by Gov. Bob Riley giving his State of the State address at 6:30 p.m.