A modest proposal for budget reform

Published 11:59 pm Tuesday, September 15, 2015

With the clock ticking down to the start of a new fiscal year Oct. 1, the Alabama Legislature has convened in Montgomery once again to try to hammer out a deal that will resolve the state’s budget woes.
After failing to reach any agreement during the Legislature’s regular session or during a subsequent special session, Gov. Robert Bentley and the Legislature’s Republican leadership are back for another crack at coming up with between roughly $200 million and $300 million in new tax revenue, spending cuts or a combination of the two.
Bentley remains adamant he’ll veto any budget that cuts essential services, while thus far Senate President Pro-Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, remains just as opposed to tax increases.
“Other than the cigarette tax, in terms of new revenue, I’ve not heard of anything else discussed that seems to have any legs on it,” Marsh said last week.
Like a soap opera villain, the cigarette tax already has died twice this year. Even if it lives again, it isn’t going to fill the hole in the state’s General Fund budget by itself.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, has said another option under discussion is to take money from a state savings account for education and to replace it later with money from the state’s share of the Gulf oil spill settlement. If lawmakers take that route, however, they will, once again, be relying on one-time windfalls for funding the day-to-day operations of state government, which is like relying on getting lucky at the racetrack every week to buy groceries.
For all lawmakers’ talk about the need for sweeping reforms, real reform of the state’s tax and budget structure seems just as elusive now as ever. The Legislature is on course to pass a ramshackle budget that Bentley will veto, only this time the Legislature will override Bentley’s veto and be done with it.
So, if the Legislature has no stomach for tax increases or real reform, how about, instead, a modest proposal that puts lawmakers’ “small government” credentials to the test?
Alabama could become the first state in the South to legalize marijuana. Sound like a bad idea? Could be, but the Legislature clearly has no interest in the many good ideas for budget reform.
Think about it. Alabama’s overcrowded jails and overburdened community corrections programs could be relieved of non-violent pot offenders. Marijuana already is the state’s No. 1 cash crop, ahead of cotton, according to The Associated Press. The state could get in on a nice stream of tax revenue. Colorado, one of two states to legalize recreational use of marijuana, has raised more than $150 million in marijuana excise tax revenue since 2012.
Legalized marijuana with the tax revenue funneled straight into the General Fund would be just the sort of recession-proof, growth tax law makers said they want.
There is an added bonus, too. At least two presidential candidates, Chris Christie and John Kasich, have said if elected they’ll go after states that legalize marijuana. So, legalizing pot also allows – at least potentially – Alabama lawmakers to do what they most love: pick a fight with the federal government. This fight they might even win.
There we have it: A modest proposal that raises no existing taxes and cuts no services.
If lawmakers don’t care for it, they can try something more radical, such as just fixing Alabama’s broken tax system so that we don’t repeat this exercise every single year.

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