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Budget-cut deliberations underway in Ala. legislature

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Alabama legislators gathered Sept.15 to launch a special session to explore massive budget cuts for the state following the 2-to-1 defeat of Gov. Bob Riley’s tax reform proposal. Legislators must pass a general fund budget and an education fund budget before Oct. 1.

The Sept. 9 vote dealing with the largest tax increase in the state’s history attracted nearly 1.3 million voters, with 68 percent voting against the plan.

At press time, predictions indicated 4,000 teaching jobs would be cut and 5,000 to 6,000 prisoners could be released early to help cover the state’s $675 million deficit. Additional budget-cut possibilities include eliminating insurance for 11,000 children from lower-income families and nursing home beds for 3,000 Medicaid patients.

Students attending Alabama’s Baptist schools also will lose when the budget ax falls, said Ginny Bugg, president of the Alabama Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “They are threatening to zero out all aid to private colleges at once,” Bugg said, noting that state grant money goes to the students, not the institution.

Bugg, a member of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham Baptist Association, said she realizes cuts will have to take place, but “we would like to receive the same percentage cuts as the rest of higher education instead of being singled out.”

The Alabama Student Grant Program currently funded by the state is a “tuition equalization” grant benefiting Alabama residents who attend private colleges, Bugg said.

“The program gives a stipend to every student who is a resident of Alabama and is attending a private college at least half-time,” she said, noting the program has been in effect since 1979. Funding is authorized for up to $1,200, but it usually averages about $600, she noted.

“It’s not much, but it is an incentive,” she said. “If the program is zeroed out, it will be hard to put it in again.”

Bugg said a massive lobbying effort was planned during the special session.

“Students will be in Montgomery and will be writing legislators,” she said. “We need to tell the legislators that parents of students at Baptist colleges pay taxes like everyone else, and those taxes help underwrite public education. It is fair to have a program to help them with tuition.”

Noting that the state’s private colleges supported Riley’s $1.2 billion tax package, Bugg said, “We felt it was important for the state and we are disappointed it did not pass.”

But political analysts said the tax package was too complicated and too much, too soon. Many also said the no vote was as much a sign of distrust as it was an opposition to taxes.

“This was a resounding vote of no confidence,” Gary Palmer, president of the Alabama Policy Institute, said the morning after the Sept. 9 vote. “… There is a lack of trust of government at all levels [of the state],” said Palmer, who opposed the tax plan. He said voters need to know where their money is going before they can be convinced to send more to the legislature.

Riley agreed, saying on Sept. 10, “I have heard what the people of Alabama have said.” The people want smaller government until the government can prove it is a good steward of the people’s money, he stated.

Dan Ireland, executive director of Alabama Citizens Action Program, noting the likelihood of a bombardment of gambling legislation during the 2004 legislative session, said he hopes the legislators will remember the people of Alabama said no to the lottery in 1999. “Gambling is not the answer,” he said.

Alabama Baptists were among the forerunners in helping to defeat a statewide lottery in 1999. A unified effort among many of the state’s 1.1 million Baptists and 3,200 Southern Baptist churches stunned gambling proponents when voters said no in no uncertain terms to lottery gambling.

But Baptists did not stop there. They stood together the following year and called for tax reform in Alabama. Messengers to the 2000 Alabama Baptist State Convention adopted a resolution calling for the governor and legislature to “bring relief and justice to the poor who are our neighbors.”

Joe Godfrey, president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, said that while Baptists as a group believe tax reform needs to happen, they did not outline a specific plan.

Godfrey added, “As Alabama Baptists, we need to continue working toward alleviating the unfair tax burden on the poor of our state.

“We need to do that with ways that are acceptable without undue tax burden on the middle and upper class,” he explained. “We need to continue to pray for the leaders of our state as they seek solutions to the fiscal problems of our state.”

“This was a divisive issue,” said Joe Bob Mizzell, director of Christian ethics for Alabama Baptists. “There are Baptists and Christians on both sides of it, and they are sincere about their positions.”

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  • Jennifer Davis Rash