Listen to any Alabama politician discussing the General Fund budget. You’ll undoubtedly hear the phrase, “budget shortfall.”

The use of those specific words is intentional. It creates the impression Alabama’s governor and legislators face grave fiscal problems forcing them to find more revenue.

It sounds good. Too bad it’s not true.

“Shortfall” isn’t one of those complicated words with many different meanings. It’s simply a deficit of what’s required or expected.  Let’s take each of those in turn.

Are Alabama’s politicians required to spend more than the $1.6 billion in revenue they’re projecting? No.

Are they expecting to have more than $1.6 billion to spend? No.

In case this is lost on anyone, we still don’t have a General Fund budget. That means it’s particularly hard to have a shortfall of said budget.

When a federal mandate unexpectedly causes the state to spend more than appropriated, that’s a shortfall. When the economy tanks after budgets are enacted, that’s a shortfall. We’ve seen what actual budget shortfalls look like in Alabama, but this isn’t one of them.

We are expecting less revenue than last year, but we’ve basically seen this coming since 2012. Remember the multiyear transfer from the Alabama Trust Fund intended to give legislators “breathing room” to solve the General Fund budget issues?

That move basically kicked the budgetary can down the road, but not much actually changed. Now we’re again at the same point, but continuing to write IOUs to ourselves isn’t on the table this go-round.

So we either tighten our belts, move money around or pony up more taxes and fees to grow spending to the levels to which we’re accustomed.

We may not have a conventional budget shortfall, but we’ve clearly reached gut check time in the Alabama Legislature. Are our political leaders dedicated to keeping government within the bounds of current revenues, or will we grow it to match political spending desires?

That’s the choice.

Gov. Robert Bentley has cast his lot. All that’s left is for legislators to decide where they believe his plan is the one they’re willing to defend before their constituents at the ballot box three years from now.

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