State depends on federal help
By By Rep. Ronald Grantland, Guest Columnist
As the weather gets colder and the holiday lights start to appear, children begin to think about one person: Santa Claus.
For us adults, the economic uncertainty and collapsing job market make us worry about Santa actually coming this year for the children in our family. Times are tough and it looks like it will be for some time. We always want to shield the kids from difficult things, at Christmas time most of all.
For a clear indication about how tough the job market is becoming the state unemployment service now has to schedule days when applicants can call in, Mondays reserved for Social Security numbers ending in zero through four, and Tuesdays ending in five through nine. The rest of the week is open to all.
Alabama’s unemployment rate in October was 5.6 percent, up from 3.5 percent a year ago. Our state unemployment rate is the highest in nearly five years, but is still a point lower than the national rate, showing Alabama is weathering this tough time better than most.
For those of us who look after state government, times are as bad as any of us can remember. Education revenue, collected from state sales and income taxes, is down almost 25 percent from a year ago. A cut that big would absolutely devastate schools, lay off thousands of teachers, and kill every effective program we’ve developed over the past 10 years.
While the voters recently approved an education credit line of 6.5 percent that can be used to offset budget shortfalls, if things continue to get worse it won’t be enough to prevent cuts this year, and even worse cuts next year.
Medicaid, one of the lynchpins of our rural healthcare system and a critical part of Alabama eldercare, is on revenue life support and faced a $77 million reduction this year. Even though gas prices have mercifully dropped to their lowest point in years, Alabamians are still driving far less than they were, and the transportation funds collected at the pump have dropped putting many road and bridge projects in jeopardy.
Alabama state government needs help, and if news reports are right it may soon come from Washington through a new economic stimulus plan.
Now some folks think of the federal government as Santa Claus, especially those that have a taste for pork. We don’t need Santa giving presents, state governments needs some direct assistance on the bread and butter basics. Washington can and should help the states in these troubled economic times. We can be sure it will be better spent than trying to salvage some insurance giant or Wall Street bank.
As part of an economic stimulus plan put forth by Congress and the incoming administration, there are plans to invest in transportation infrastructure. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, of which Alabama is a member, has outlined 5,000 highway projects, including 16 in Alabama, that are ready to go if Congress appropriates the funds as part of a stimulus. The 16 projects on the list total $877 million, and would put thousands back to work.
Gov. Riley recently met with president-elect Obama and talked to him about Medicaid. It is a program that has federal mandates, but is funded from state and federal funds. The mandates have increased the state requirement far and above what our meager tax system can afford, and the governor asked the president-elect for a higher contribution to cover the shortfall.
Alabama is not looking for Santa Claus, and we are not looking for a handout either. But the federal government does have an important role in tough economic times, as we learned with Roosevelt in the Depression.
Helping with crucial state responsibilities like healthcare and infrastructure should be a significant part of any new economic plan from Washington.