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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Democrats continue to slam Riley's budget



Democratic criticism of Gov. Bob Riley's proposed budget continues with them asking him to tell the truth and saying his proposal is "smoke and mirrors."
Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, a Democrat who is running for governor, said the governor told people on statewide TV that the state's budgets are not in a crisis, but that Riley's proposal cut his department by almost $2 million to $14 million.
Sen. Hank Sanders, chairman of the Senate education budget committee, called Riley's proposal "smoke and mirrors" and said it will make crafting the budget more difficult for lawmakers because some people have unrealistic expectations after hearing from the governor.
"I think those budgets are driven more by bingo than by reality," said Sanders, D-Selma. "The governor spent more time dealing with bingo and gambling than any other issue. This was created to distract from the reality of the financial crisis we are facing."
The senator said Riley is trying to convince people there is no crisis and no need to tax and regulate gambling.
Riley and Acting Finance Director Bill Newton said they expect Congress to pass a second stimulus plan that could send about $500 million more in federal help to Montgomery. About $500 million more could be available for transportation.
The governor said he has talked to members of Congress and is confident the help is coming. The U.S. House has passed a second stimulus package, but the Senate has not acted.
Sanders said the Senate is usually a larger obstacle to passing such massive legislation.
Riley said it would be asinine to propose a budget with layoffs and other cuts that would concern employees when his administration is expecting relief.
"I guess those politicians would rather the state fire 3,500 teachers when we don't have to," said Todd Stacy, press secretary for the governor.
Newton said it is common for the governor's office and lawmakers to estimate the revenue they expect from the federal government while drafting the budgets. He said they had to use educated estimates to build the budgets a year ago because, like this year, Congress was still working on the stimulus.
Stacy said no one seemed to have a problem with estimating possible stimulus funds a year ago.
"It would be irresponsible to budget under the assumption that zero federal money is coming to Alabama. We know federal money is coming," he said.
Sparks said Riley is depending on legislation that has no Republican support. He said there would be thousands of layoffs without the help of the first stimulus supported by Washington Democrats.
The governor presented a budget based on the best estimates of what money will be available, Stacy said.
"The only reason anyone is surprised there is no fiscal crisis is because chicken little lobbyists and gambling interests for months have been creating a doom's day scenario," he said. "The fact of the matter is the state has the resources to get through 2011."
The Legislative Fiscal Office estimated a more than $600 million hole in the General Fund budget, which is used to operate prisons, state troopers and Medicaid.
Sparks said 63 employees in his department took voluntary furlough days during the holidays. With further cuts, the commissioner said the department would need to cut essential services including the food inspection program.
Sparks said they have cut security guards at the agriculture department, cut per diem and overnight travel, he has given up his state vehicle, and the department stopped purchasing new equipment. He said there are also the statewide freezes on hiring and merit pay increases.
"The size of the department is dwindling every day," the commissioner said.
Sparks said employees are expecting more than can be delivered.
Stacy said the budget has been cut and spending has been reduced, which he said is good financial management given the economic situation.
"The governor didn't say everything is fine. He said it's not a crisis," he said.
Talk of a crisis is untrue given that the General Fund budget is level funded, Stacy said.
Sparks' proposal to fill holes in the budget is implementing a state lottery and taxing and regulating gambling to fund education, Medicaid and college scholarships. He said gambling is here and there are Alabamians driving to neighboring states to gamble and buy lottery tickets.
"The difference is they get the money to educate their children and we don't," Sparks said.
Riley is engaged in a very public fight against gambling and started a task force to stop it. The governor said electronic bingo is illegal in Alabama.
"Legalized casino gambling would be a bad idea for Alabama because it would drastically hurt the economy," Stacy said.
Riley talked this week of the social effects of gambling on a community.



-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen



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South Union Street is the blog of Montgomery Advertiser political reporters Markeshia Ricks and Sebastian Kitchen. Always check here for the latest on the Legislature, elections and other activities and players in Alabama.

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