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Holding our own is progress

By By Rep. Ronald Grantland, Guest columnist
The most important job in any legislative session is to pass budgets, and with the actions taken in the statehouse last week, it looks like we will meet that goal.
There are two budgets for state government: the Education Trust Fund and the General Fund. They cover exactly what you would think they would. The ETF funds everything from K-12 to our universities and the General Fund covers all non-education spending, like health care and public safety.
Last week, the Senate passed the education budget 32-0, in a remarkable feat of bipartisanship and practicality, and sent it on to the House where it will almost certainly pass in a like manner. The House passed the General Fund budget 101-0 and sent it on to the Senate, again in a pretty remarkable effort of cooperation and efficiency.
One main reason for such widespread agreement on the budgets is that they are as “ugly duckling” as you can get, to coin a phrase made popular last week.
The $2.5 billion General Fund budget protects the jobs of state employees and boosts funding for critical state services. Just three months ago, it looked like thousands of layoffs would be necessary for things like child protection services because of a drop in revenue caused by the economic turmoil.
Thanks to an infusion of about $1 billion in federal stimulus funds, the budget preserved those vital services. As an example, right now the Department of Public Health is gearing up its response to a possible swine flu outbreak, monitoring hospitals, and getting its rapid response assets ready. If, heaven forbid, there is an outbreak, Alabama has the professionals and tools necessary to aggressively deal with it.
The stimulus also protected the education budget, infusing $1.3 billion over two years, and saving more than 5,000 teacher and support worker jobs.
The school funding measure that passed the Senate was $150 million less than what was passed last year, but it could have been much worse. Prior to the stimulus being passed, Alabama was looking at cutting more than $800 million from a $6.3 billion budget, which is about a 12 percent cut. That would have devastated programs like the Reading Initiative and distance leaning programs that have done so much to move student achievement forward.
Both the Education Trust Fund and the General Fund are as bare bones as you can get, and that may be the reason why they’ve gained such widespread support. Not many folks want to fight over an “ugly duckling” measure. It is the best we could do under the circumstances, and everyone knows it.
Once the budgets have passed, there is still work to be done. There are dozens of important bills that still must be acted upon, and there is no resolution on major pieces of legislation like abolishing the tax on groceries.
Yet the budgets will have passed, and they will have done so without the wholesale destruction of vital programs and services like health care and education.
In today’s world, with so much uncertainty, just holding your own feels almost like progress, and that seems to be a unanimous sentiment in the Legislature.

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