THE BLOG
07/28/2016 04:45 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2017

Alabama Should Build a Bridge to Fiscal Responsibility

Anyone who is following Alabama's ongoing budget crisis knows that the state is slashing funds for basic human services to try and make ends meet. Despite borrowing $437 million in 2012 to close budget shortfalls for the ensuing three years, Gov. Robert Bentley still hasn't managed to solve Alabama's budget problems, which are having an economic ripple effect throughout the state.

Bentley has sought to close the budget gap signing tax increases that disproportionately affect low-income taxpayers in Alabama. He coupled those tax increases with cuts to Medicaid and education funding. The Medicaid cuts, in particular, threaten to trigger a health crisis in the state. According to the Montgomery Advertiser, medical providers in the state are extremely concerned:

In a joint statement on April 8, the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, the Academy of Pediatrics and the Alabama Academy of Family Physicians warned that without full funding, "charity care needs could skyrocket, crippling the health care delivery system and potentially placing the burden on those with private health insurance through higher premiums and co-pays."

"Alabama Medicaid is the backbone of our state, supporting the health and welfare of the young and elderly citizens that physicians have pledged to protect during their medical careers," the statement said. "Consequently, we cannot support any solution other than fully funding a program that touches so many lives."

On top of all these cuts, the state's budget crisis is preventing it from fixing its crumbling infrastructure. State transportation officials have classified 20 percent of Alabama's 15,986 bridges as either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. And, the problem is only getting worse. According to the 2015 "Report Card for Alabama's Infrastructure" prepared by the American Society of Civil Engineers, future roadway needs in Alabama are projected to cost almost $37 billion by 2035, and the funding shortfall for state roadways is projected to be between $6.5 billion and $10 billion by 2035.

Despite this bleak statewide budgetary picture, some local officials in southern Alabama have proposed a plan to build a new road and bridge to a vacation home community at a cost of $30 million to taxpayers.

The bridge would span the Intracoastal Waterway into the Gulf Coast resort communities of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores in Baldwin County. There are already two bridges that take traffic across the waterway to the Gulf Coast: I-59, a toll-free bridge built and maintained by the state, and a privately owned and operated toll bridge.

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon has taken a hard-line approach, proposing two approaches. Either the company operating the toll bridge expands it and slashes tolls in half, or Baldwin County borrows $30 million to build its own free bridge. Cutting tolls is good politics but not likely to compel the bridge company to act; the existing toll rates of $3.50 for out-of-state drivers and $1.50 for locals is in line with peer structures and allows the bridge operator to maintain the property while making a profit on its investment. But most importantly, the existing toll bridge is currently being paid for by the people who drive on it, and a higher proportion of revenue comes from out-of-state drivers. Efforts to build another, redundant bridge to a wealthy vacation community, or to cut tolls to save rich tourists a buck as proposed by one local mayor, are utterly shortsighted. Alabama's richest already get plenty of special treatment as it is.

It is no secret that poverty is rampant throughout Alabama. Gov. Bentley lamented this fact in a 2014 address to legislators, saying "Everyone in this room knows Alabama is one of the poorest states in America, where one in four children live in poverty. Nearly one million of our fellow Alabamians are dependent on Food Stamps."

However, Baldwin County is one of only seven counties in the state with a poverty rate below 15 percent, while boasting the sixth highest median income in the state.

At a time when Alabama's fiscal situation borders on disaster, and those who are most vulnerable are paying the price, the state's leaders should not be pushing pet projects that favor wealthy vacation communities.

This is an issue that should unite both parties. Republicans who preach fiscal responsibility and eliminating wasteful government spending should join with Democrats who don't want to see necessary public services cut in favor of a pet project that benefits the rich.

State leaders have a choice. They can either build a bridge that deepens the state's budget woes or they can build a bridge to fiscal responsibility. One hopes they choose the latter.