Lawmakers to discuss budgets

Published 4:00 am Saturday, April 11, 2015

State lawmakers will soon face some difficult decisions as budget debates begin, said Rep. Alan Boothe, R-Troy.

“The budgets are the big ticket items we have going right now,” Boothe said. “Once the education budget comes down (from the Senate), we’ll take it up and start having our discussions and come to a conclusion on the education issue and the education budget.”

The education budget is never an easy issue to resolve, especially since lawmakers always seek ways to “help teachers and increase the amount of teachers we have,” Boothe said, but this year it is the easier of the two budgets.

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“The education budget is dictated by the cap on it,” Boothe said. “We can only spend what we spent the year before, plus a small percentage. The education budget is in much better shape than the general fund because of the amount of taxes that go into. …

“I haven’t seen any movements for pay raises. We don’t have a whole abundance of money in the education budget. We have to put money back in the budget. That’s the number one priority.”

But, Boothe said the general fund budget and its shortfall will be a bigger challenge for lawmakers. And Gov. Robert Bentley’s $700 million revenue plan is opening the door to widespread debate over how to offset the shortfalls – including through gambling or lottery revenues.

Boothe said the proposal for a state lottery has been drawing the most attention and has the potential to cut the state’s budget shortfall at it’s knees.

“The governor told us that nothing is off the table,” Boothe said. “If everything is on the table that’s certainly to be considered. The compact that the governor’s office has with the Indians that’s an issue that needs to be resolved, as well.”

Boothe said the compact would give Native Americans the right to expand on their reservations and to be able to expand their casinos.

“Right now they have slots, but this would allow them to have table games,” Boothe said. “You could do a compact for a three or four year period and if it didn’t work out then you could remove it, but if they’re going to operate they certainly need to be taxed like any other business in Alabama.”

And, in speaking of proposed taxes, Boothe said he was concerned about Bentley’s proposed tax hikes on cigarettes and automobiles, likening the hikes to taxing alcohol or other goods and services.

“You can take yourself out of business,” Boothe said. “I don’t personally smoke so it doesn’t affect me, but for people who do smoke if it’s $5 for a pack of cigarettes but they’re $4 dollars in other places, then the sales will go down. People will start buying them somewhere else and reduce the amount of taxes we get. We would be punishing ourselves for raising the taxes. Alcohol has a tax and people will buy it somewhere else and you don’t get anything from it.”

Boothe said ultimately his goal for this legislative session would be to decrease the amount of taxes levied on Alabamians.

“We just need to quit kicking the can down the road and make a decision on it,” Boothe said. “With the compact and the lottery, if those two things pass and went in, it would certainly decrease the amount of taxes we’re levying on the citizens.”

In non-taxation issues, Boothe said said he is closing watching Senate Bill 67, which would reform felony classifications, provide alternative sentencing and add additional probation and parole officers to the Alabama prison systems. Boothe said prison reforms are high on his radar scoped and he hopes some good would come from the reforms, even if they do have a hefty price tag.

“Prison reform it’s something that’s needed,” Boothe said. The whole system needs to be looked at. I think that’s what the committee is doing, and we need to look at sentencing. If we don’t do it now the federal government will step in. There is optimism on prison reform, but there’s a $20 million price tag on it. While we’re optimistic we have to be realistic.”

Boothe said that was one of several dilemmas the House was currently facing, and said he hoped to have the issue resolved sooner rather than later.

While Boothe has said he would support the prison reforms Alabama prisons so desperately need, he said he would not support Senate Bill 44, which would, if passed, dictate that Alabama State Troopers and Alabama Law Enforcement Agency give back the money they have received since raising the driver’s license fee for the first time in more than 10 years.

“I disagree with the way that was done that was done,” Boothe said. “The probate judges were just hit with it from Friday night to Monday morning, and I don’t think the way it was done was the most efficient way. But, it’s imperative that we keep these driver’s license offices opened and troopers on the road. I think it could have been handled better but the fact that there was an increase, I would not vote to take that money away.”