Legislature looking to craft 2010 budget

Published 5:16 am Wednesday, January 20, 2010

By By Steve Flowers
As the legislature wrestles with the daunting dilemma of crafting a budget in these dire economic times, they are mindful that the worst is yet to come. Those returning for the next quadrennium will face the Herculean task of riding out this economic tsunami.
The only situation vaguely similar to this current scenario was 1983. We were in the throes of an economic recession. George Wallace had just taken the reigns of state government for his fourth term. Wallace’s health was so poor that it was doubtful he would live out his full term, much less run for a fifth. He had nothing to lose, so he chose to raise taxes. Wallace called his new taxes and fee increases revenue enhancement measures.
Wallace called one special session after the other to raise fees on everything that was not nailed down. His true political philosophy came to light. Wallace came of age during the Depression and the New Deal. In his heart he was a FDR progressive Democrat. He did not believe in cutting or downsizing government but expanding government services.
Wallace also had an ironclad lock on the legislature. The Rules Committee agenda was actually sent down from the Governor’s office. However, much has changed in the last 27 years. The legislature has become independent from the Governor’s office, but they have become more dependent on special interests. The most powerful of those interests is the Alabama Education Association. Today Paul Hubbert is more likely to draft the Rules Committee special order calendar and the Governor would be lucky if he got one of his bills on the agenda.
Gov. Bob Riley entered his first term espousing the Ronald Reagan no tax small government philosophy. He immediately looked like a liberal Democrat by offering the largest tax increase in history for the voters of Alabama to approve. They quickly handed him his hat.
You can bet your boots that not only did Riley learn his lesson, but I guarantee you that all of the GOP gubernatorial aspirants saw the results of that referendum. You will not see any of those candidates refuse to take a no new tax pledge.
Therefore, if the new governor is a Republican we will not see any revenue enhancement measures brought to the table.
Riley’s adamant stance against taxing gambling is an unpopular position. It will be hard for the new governor to ignore this vein of revenue. Poll after poll reveals that over the past decade the measure has incrementally risen in popularity. Any reputable poll reveals that if a referendum to approve a lottery or bingo to raise revenue for the beleaguered state coffers were offered to Alabamians, it would be approved by over 60 percent of voters.
In Houston County, one of the most conservative counties in the state, the citizens of this religious enclave indicated that they approved of bingo at the new Country Crossings entertainment center by 70 percent. It is so overwhelmingly favored that Riley’s opposition of it has caused him to be a pariah in the southern corner of the state.
You can bet that legislative and gubernatorial candidates will be asked where they stand on this issue during the upcoming primaries and general election. They will be asked other tough questions about the state’s financial crisis in addition to whether bingo or lottery revenue is part of the solution.
The resolution of the PACT program will be a pivotal issue with about 100,000 Alabamians who have invested part of their life savings with the state with the expectation that their children or grandchildren would get a college education.
A good many incumbent legislators will be asked how they voted on giving themselves a gigantic pay increase. The issue of accountability is paramount with voters.
It remains to be seen whether national politics will have any affect on Alabama’s political races. Alabama is not an island or vacuum. We are definitely a red state, but we are not immune to national trends.
History reveals that the out party picks up congressional seats in an off year election. This shift is even more pronounced after one party wins the White House. Two years later the opposition party always picks up seats in Congress.
This historical tendency, coupled with the weak economy, bodes for significant Democratic loses in Congress.
The question is whether this trend will permeate or filter down to legislative seats in Alabama.
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 reached at www.steveflowers.us.

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