Legislators facing daunting financial problems during session

Published 11:42 pm Wednesday, March 19, 2008

By By Steve Flowers
The legislative session is in full swing and is entering its sixth week. Legislators are facing daunting financial problems. They are striving to balance both the general and education budgets, which are under duress from the national economic downturn. The Education Trust Fund is especially sensitive to an economic recession because its main source of revenue derives from sales and income taxes.
Even though the legislature is wrestling with monumental money problems and a myriad of vital issues the one constant question I am asked is what happened to the Senator who punched his fellow Senator in the face on the floor of the Senate. The answer is nothing.
The titanic struggle that exists in the Senate revolves around party politics. There are presently twenty-three Democrats and twelve Republicans in the state’s upper chamber. Three of the Democrats organize and vote with Republicans. So the split is twenty to fifteen. Originally it was even closer, eighteen to seventeen. They are divided into these two teams and they will not compromise or even speak or be civil to their opponents.
Charles Bishop, a Republican from Walker County who was formerly a Democrat, slugged the unsuspecting Democratic leader Lowell Barron on the last day of the session last year. Both sides were on edge from the acrimony pervasive throughout the three month session. It was probably not a total surprise that Bishop’s frustration with constantly being on the losing side would surface. Bishop’s temper is legendary. He does not like to lose nor does he like not getting his way. The punch was caught by television cameras and seen round the world. It gave the state a black eye to say the least.
The result evolved to a resolution befitting the divide in the Senate. When the majority organized and set the rules last year an ethics committee was formed. It was given very little deference or thought. It was comprised of three majority members and two minority members. However, the rules provide that in order to censure or expel a member the vote would have to be 4 to 1.
When the committee met the week before the session began the vote came down exactly as might be expected. The two minority members stood with their teammate Bishop. Therefore nothing was done. Partisan politics prevailed over decorum. The message sent to Alabama citizens, schoolchildren, and throughout the world is that it is okay to hit someone you get mad at on the floor of the Alabama Senate. In Alabama party fights supersede protocol.
As the Legislature faces a litany of issues the Senate remains divided along party lines. Much like last year, the House is working diligently to address the problems on their plate and the Senate has become a logjam. The budget solutions will more than likely be dealt with towards the end of the session.
n the meantime, the House has passed legislation to raise the minimum amount of automobile liability insurance that motorists must purchase. The last time it was raised was 1983. It was my freshman year in the legislature. It created a titanic battle between the trial lawyers and insurance companies. The prevailing issue was tort reform and any incremental change instigated a tumultuous fight. You can tell the issue has subsided because the current bill passed the House 82 to 0 and a similar bill passed the Senate 33 to 0. Most Alabamians carry more than the minimum limits. The legislation will affect 10 percent of Alabama drivers and will cost them about $25 more annually.
Other important legislation on the legislators’ wish list include banning annual reappraisals of property and allowing reappraisals on real estate no more than once every four years. In addition, legislation is being pushed to require immigrants to provide proof of legal residency before receiving some state benefits such as instate tuition at colleges. Proposals have been offered to change the way Alabama’s transportation infrastructure is implemented and an effort is being made to require electronic verification of liability insurance.
The House has passed a proposed constitutional amendment that would set up a rainy day savings account for the state’s General Fund. The proposed amendment would use funds from a savings account made up of oil and gas revenues to establish the account. If this proposed amendment receives final passage in the Senate it must be approved in a statewide vote.
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.

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