As most of my Alabama readers know, our legislature ended the session with no solution to our budget shortfall. We simply do not raise enough money in tax revenue to run the most basic functions of the state. On August 3, our legislature meets in special session to try and solve what couldn’t be solved for months this spring.
Governor Bentley has now released the details of his plan. There is a bit of actual revenue raising, but much of his answer appears to be shuffling money from one insufficient fund to another.
Most alarming is the proposed un-earmarking of nearly $200 million intended for the Special Mental Health Trust Fund—a substantial part of the Department of Mental Health’s budget. Otherwise, the Department depends on General Fund appropriations, which have steadily declined over recent years—the earmarked money is the only secure element. The outcome of poor funding has been dismal, with ever-longer waiting lists for life-saving services. Shane Watkins died this year, because when he needed hospitalization for his severe schizophrenia, there were no beds. Current funding is not acceptable. Level funding for 2016 would not be a victory. Now our governor wants to put mental health funding at even more risk.
Here is an example of the deleted earmarks: “…shall be deposited in the State Treasury to the credit of a special fund which shall be designated the Alabama Special Mental Health Fund and shall be used only for mental health purposes, including the prevention of mental illness, the care and treatment of the mentally ill and the mentally deficient and the acquisition, equipment, operation and maintenance of facilities for mental health purposes.”
Supposedly, we are to believe that money will be taken and then somehow returned afterwards in the subsequent budget process, with a leap of faith reminiscent of the Flying Wallendas. But if these funds are needed to make up a deficit in the General Fund to begin with, how will they be given back? Where will the money come from? If there is money to return to the Department of Mental Health, then why take it away at all? Removing an earmark to solve a General Fund shortfall only makes sense if the earmark is going to an over-funded area. I am not an accountant—I never in my life took a finance class. I still think I can recognize tomfoolery when it is this blatant.
I am aware that our state has an incredible number of earmarks, and I know analysts have said this is a problem. At the same time, I can see why we need them in a state which refuses to fund basic functions on a reliable basis in the annual budget. It’s the Ulysses strategy—we lash our legislators to the budget mast before they pass the Sirens singing at them to drown us in the bathtub.
I strongly recommend that Alabama voters contact their legislators now and advise against un-earmarking these critical funds. Tell them we don’t want circus acts performed with our money.