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Crafting the budget will affect elections

By By Steve Flowers
The 2010 Legislative Session is underway with an ominous cloud of economic woes overshadowing every move. Other issues pale with the daunting task of crafting the 2011 state budgets staring legislators in the face.
Unlike the federal government, which can deficit spend like drunken sailors with no thought of fiscal restraint, Alabama has a constitutional mandate to create and live with a balanced budget. We cannot spend more than we take in and then pass the debt on to the next generation like the U.S. Congress continues to do year after year.
To further complicate the financial dilemma facing lawmakers, this is an election year and all 140 members will face the voters in the primaries and general election. Therefore, the legislature has to deal with the budget crisis with the backdrop of the 2010 elections clearly on the horizon.
The yesteryear of all Alabama legislators being in one political party is gone. Partisanship has arrived in Alabama politics. It is illustrated vividly in the goings on atop Goat Hill. Therefore, partisan political posturing will be the order of the day. In fact, the legislative races may very well be the most contentious contests on the ballot. You will probably see the lions share of political action money spent on legislative and senate seats this year. There will be a concerted effort by the GOP to become the majority in both the House and Senate.
When the dust settles after the Nov. 2, 2010 general election the real legislative battle royale will begin. The two month period between Nov. 2 and Jan. 2, 2011 will see an internal legislative brawl to determine who will become the next Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate. This will be the best political show of the decade. In fact, this backroom civil war may determine who will be in charge for the next decade.
My observation is that even though you will see the obvious partisan political posturing most legislators do not want to rock the boat and create political waves. They are all part of a body that passed a 62 percent pay increase for themselves for a part-time job at a time when many of their constituents are struggling to make ends meet and a good many have lost their jobs. Furthermore, in lean times there is no surplus money to fight over. These hard economic times may portend for a more harmonious session.
What about the other issues that will be on the legislative agenda? First on both parties’ platitudes is ethics reform. This mantra is paraded by both parties. The governor will try to make this his hallmark issue in his last year in office. As a lame duck and with his party a minority in both chambers his initiatives will get little traction.
The Democrats will counter with the fact that Riley’s administration has had ethical lapses of its own and his posturing is hypocritical. They will point to multimillion dollar no bid contracts awarded to a computer company that has no offices or telephones, multimillion dollar no bid legal contracts awarded to the governor’s son’s and son-in-law’s law firms and the obvious use of the infamous PAC to PAC loophole in the state campaign finance disclosure laws used by Riley’s 2002 campaign to funnel an enormous amount of Mississippi Indian casino money into Riley’s campaign.
The Democrats will also counter with efforts of their own to focus on limiting no bid contracts. However, you can bet your bottom dollar that neither party will address and resolve the PAC to PAC problem in an election year because they all want that hidden and clandestine campaign money.
A serious problem that should be addressed is the PACT program. There are thousands of Alabamians who paid their hard earned savings into this program with the expectation that their children or grandchildren would receive a college education. These people are voters and they are watching and waiting.
If they are prudent enough to save for their children’s education, it is a safe bet that they vote. Hopefully, legislators will work to resolve this promise. However, do no get your hopes up. It will probably be swept under the rug for the next quadrennium.
The issue of electronic bingo will also surface. There will be an effort to put the issue on the ballot and allow the voters to decide whether they want to regulate and tax gambling. Gov. Riley does not want Alabamians to vote on this issue. Therefore, his veto threat will probably thwart a vote of the people. Lastly, you will probably see legislation pass that will make it a misdemeanor to text message while driving a vehicle.
It will be an interesting session.
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