Legislative session ends without much activity

Published 5:02 am Wednesday, May 27, 2009

By By Jo Bonner
The 2009 legislative session is now history. It was basically a carbon copy of the previous two of this quadrennium. It could be rated a little better because it did not end with a fist fight and the budgets were passed. Although there was more activity and some legislation actually passed, most of the high-profile issues failed.
The two state budgets were easier to craft because there is very little money. In lean years, there is very little discretion and less room for contention. As in the past six years, the Democratic Legislature essentially ignored the Republican Governor’s budget and initiatives. The Governor’s proposed ethics overhaul never saw the light of day. It did not even get addressed by a legislative committee until the waning days of the Session.
The Legislature has left Gov. Riley out of the Legislative process during his entire tenure. They throw his budget in the nearest trash can and put all his proposals in a graveyard committee. He has taken the rebuff in stride and with aplomb. His successes as Governor have come outside the Legislative arena.
Federal stimulus funds saved the bacon for the Legislature. Both the Education and General Fund Budgets relied heavily on these one time funds to resolve their budget dilemma. Alabama depends primarily on sales and income taxes to fund our schools. Therefore, when the economy goes south and other states get a cold we get pneumonia. This one time money will not be available in January 2011 when the new Governor will take office. Whoever is elected will be walking onto the deck of the Titanic.
The $2.2 billion General Fund Budget includes $1 billion of federal stimulus funds and is 35 percent larger than this year’s scaled down budget of $1.6 billion. Most state agencies are getting roughly the same amount that they are currently receiving because a good portion of the increase is for one time transportation projects called for in the stimulus package.
The $6.2 billion Education Budget includes $513 million in federal stimulus funds. It is about 7 percent higher than this year’s scaled down budget of $5.8 billion. Both budgets take effect Oct. 1.
All of the high profile measures failed in the Session. Riley’s ethics bill, the Sweet Home Alabama’s taxing and regulating of electronic bingo, the removal of sales tax on groceries, and the plan to rescue the prepaid college tuition program all failed to pass.
Although the Governor made the ethics issue his priority and the entertainment industry spent a fortune advertising the Sweet Home Alabama deal, neither issue got much traction. On the other hand, the bill to remove the sales tax on groceries got lots of chances. The black Democratic caucus made it their primary issue. It came to the floor five times. Each time it met with a close loss due to an ironclad solid opposition from Republican legislators. This issue ate up at least half of the House’s allotted time and spurred numerous filibusters.
It was surprising that neither the House nor Senate made much progress on the problems plaguing the Prepaid College Tuition Plan. They may assume that it will correct itself, but that is pretty wishful thinking. In the meantime, they have hung State Treasurer Kay Ivey out to dry.
You will see four of these issues, the tuition rescue, the sales tax on groceries, the regulating and taxing of bingo, and ethics reform, back on the burner in 2010, which will of course be an election year.
One of the most profound revelations of the Session happened in the waning hours. House Speaker Seth Hammett went to the microphone just before the sine die adjournment motion and announced his retirement. The jockeying will begin to be his successor. The Republicans will have a rejuvenated and more fervent effort to take over the House in next year’s elections. They will probably capture Hammett’s Covington County seat. That county has become very Republican. Two State Senators also announced their intentions to not run again. The Dean of the Senate, Bobby Denton, is leaving after 32 years and Jasper State Senator Charles Bishop will not seek reelection.
The political announcements will be forthcoming fast and furiously in the next few weeks. The 2010 campaign will begin in June when the law allows candidates to start raising money. The horses will start entering the gate.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 75 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the State Legislature. He may be contacted at www.steveflowers.us.

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