Constitution and budget woes
The Anniston Star
In our opinion
04-21-2008

You must give Gov. Bob Riley credit for innovation. Faced with a looming budget crisis, he is trying a number of different approaches to pump more money into state agencies and prevent or minimize cuts that would otherwise be severe.

One of these strategies in-volved taking $63 million that was part of a settlement with Exxon Mobil over royalties from natural gas wells in Alabama waters. Instead of putting it into the Alabama Trust Fund, Riley shifted it over to the General Fund, which badly needs it.

Stan Pate, a Tuscaloosa real estate developer and frequent critic of the governor, filed suit to challenge the action.

It was Pate's contention that the constitutional amendment that created the Alabama Trust Fund required that the money Riley transferred be left in the Trust; therefore, moving it to the General Fund was improper. Circuit Judge William Shashy agreed and issued an injunction stopping the governor.

Riley's office says he will appeal. If the governor loses, you can blame or praise our Constitution — depending on your point of view.

The Alabama Trust Fund was constitutionally created as a place where natural-gas royalties and related payments would be placed. According to the judge, "Oil and Gas Capital Payments" were included in that category. The interest from this fund could be used for specific projects.

If the ruling is upheld, then the General Fund budget will be down another 3 percent, a cut it can scarcely afford. So it follows that the governor and legislators are scrambling to find new revenue. It also follows that there is talk of expanding gambling in the state as a way to generate additional funds.

While hands are being wrung and trial balloons are being floated, this would also be a good time to take another look at the Alabama Trust Fund itself. Only 65 percent of the royalty money goes into the Alabama Trust. Twenty-eight percent goes into a capital-improvement trust fund (which may be from where the governor claims he is taking money) and 7 percent is split among cities and counties statewide. In other words, Alabama has again earmarked itself into a corner.

It's a similar story: A budget crisis has revealed just how our state Constitution makes it difficult, if not impossible, to respond to state needs in an effective and efficient manner. Even more evidence of why a new Constitution is an urgent matter.

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