Halfway there and moving smoothly

Published 11:44 pm Wednesday, April 25, 2007

By By Steve Flowers
This year's Legislative Session is at the midway point and it was moving somewhat smoother than was originally anticipated. However, the partisan acrimony created by the organizational session's war for control of the senate has crept into the picture and has cast a somber cloud over the process. The early harmony was inspired more by the State's strongest economy in years, than a bipartisan laying down of the swords.
The State's financial status is much rosier than when Riley took over for his first term four years ago. The Education Trust Fund is up over 10 percent for this fiscal year. Eighty-six percent of education fund money comes from income and sales taxes. Therefore when the economy is good, education reaps the windfall.
Riley began his State of the State address in March by acknowledging the State's good fortune. He told the legislature, "The budget deficit we inherited is gone, replaced by another record surplus. Our economy is booming and education funding and performance are at record highs." Due to the record surplus his proposals are achievable.
Riley is adopting the same seven percent pay raise for teachers that is suggested by AEA. Riley has finally joined a long list of Governors who realize that they cannot thwart the will of the omnipotent AEA leader, Paul Hubbert, so why not just join them? There will be no fight over the seven percent pay hike for all education employees.
Riley is also recommending that the legislature approve the largest education bond issue in state history. The bond issue of $850 million is for new school construction. That is $300 million more than the previous state record of $550 million in 1998. He has the support of the legislative leadership on the bond issue, including State Senate President Pro Tem Hinton Mitchem.
Riley is also seeking additional funding for his pet project, the Alabama Reading Initiative. This program is much heralded and award winning. It appears to be working. The Governor wants to expand the Initiative beyond grades K-3. He also plans to install math and science initiatives in more schools and provide distance learning labs in all high schools by 2010, so rural schools can offer the same advanced courses as urban schools.
The Democratic Legislature will go along with the Governor on the three above proposals, but where they will draw the line is on Riley's trumpeted call for tax cuts. Riley says it is a point of pride that we are the lowest taxed state in the nation. He believes we should get even lower. Riley said a tax cut approved by lawmakers last year for the poor "left too many families behind." He wants to cut taxes for all Alabamians, including those who make over $100,000 per year. He will clash with legislators and education lobbyists over this tax proposal. David Bronner, the Chief Executive of the Retirement Systems of Alabama said, "Low taxes are good but being the lowest taxed in America is dumb."
The biggest surprise of the session has been the progress that campaign and ethics reform has seen in the process. It would be a significant progressive move in campaign reform if the Legislature passes a ban on PAC to PAC transfers. This practice of transferring money between political action committees makes campaign contributions impossible to track. In addition, ethics reform measures which would require lobbyists to report everything they spend on public officials are getting a fair hearing. If these reforms are enacted it would make this legislative session a success.
Riley's tax break proposal for small businesses, to help defray the cost of health insurance, has received accolades nationwide as a way to fund the ever increasing cost of health care. His administrative move to cut foreign energy dependence has also gotten national attention. His edict to spend $324,000 to switch a fleet of vehicles to ethanol power is unique. Of the State's 207 vehicles, 132 can use this flex fuel which is 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol.
Even though the State Education Fund is flush, legislators have a way of spending all they have and more. Fortunately we in Alabama, unlike Washington, have a prohibition against deficit spending. Our Alabama Constitution requires a balanced budget.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama's leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the State Legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us <http://www.steveflowers.us/>

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