----- Original Message ----- 
Sent: Friday, February 14, 2003 4:23 AM
Subject: better keep an eye out

Seek efficiency before money 

By Gary Palmer 

               Going into Alabama's next legislative session, politicians, government employees and concerned citizens alike are focused on numbers -- and some pretty daunting numbers at that. Right now the numbers capturing their attention show that the state could be short anywhere from $200 million to $500 million in revenues for the education and General Fund budgets this year. 

But there are a couple of other numbers our elected officials, the media and others that are clamoring for higher taxes should pay attention to -- 80 and 20. Those are the numbers that those pushing for an 8-mill property tax increase in the Dothan and Houston County school systems saw on Feb. 4 when 80 percent of the voters said no to the increase. 

Only the most dim-witted observers would fail to grasp that there is a clear message being sent when 80 percent of the public votes against raising taxes to give more money to the schools. And that message is not that the taxpayers don't care about their schools. It is that the vast majority of voters have lost confidence that the government is using their money wisely. 

Ironically, prior to the Dothan/Houston County referendum, the idea of outsourcing school transportation, food service and janitorial and maintenance services as a means of saving money was proposed. Based on a report published in January by the Alabama Policy Institute, if outsourcing were implemented statewide the schools could save themselves $50 million to $80 million a year. 

But in true government bureaucrat style, the local officials in Dothan summarily dismissed these ideas. 

Other states have faced even more severe shortfalls than Alabama is facing and made necessary, though very difficult, adjustments to their spending. When John Engler first took office as Michigan's governor, the economy was in recession and the state was facing a $1.8 billion deficit. Engler made some gut-wrenching decisions to reduce state spending that included closing an entire department of state government and reducing the number of state employees. Despite these tough measures, Engler was re-elected twice. 

Other states facing budget shortfalls have undertaken efforts to reduce their expenses by: 
Putting a freeze on state hiring, offering early retirement incentives, capping the number of employees and reducing the number of government positions. 
Contracting out state services to private companies. 
Restructuring employee health benefits plans. 
Selling excess government property which not only provides immediate revenue, but also puts the property back into the tax base. 
Eliminating programs that perform poorly or that are not part of the core function of government. 
Implementing waste reduction and cost-cutting measures in every department. 

These are just a few ideas that the politicians could implement to begin to restore the public's confidence in government. 

Frankly, we do need tax reform in Alabama and in the final analysis I think we will find that we do need to increase revenues. But bringing in higher revenues through tax reform without reforming the way we budget and spend will do little good long-term and the taxpayers know it. 

The biggest obstacle to meaningful reforms in Alabama is public cynicism