Recovery from last two Aprils will take years
The last two Aprils have not been good to Alabama. On April 20, 2010, the infamous BP Deepwater oil spill disaster occurred. The massive eruption off the Louisiana coast sent crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico continuously for 85 days. We are still trying to calculate the damage. In just one example, Alabama’s beach rental revenue fell from $133 million in 2009 to $70 million last year. The ecological damage probably cannot be properly assessed for decades.
On April 27, Alabama was struck by the worst natural disaster in our history. Over 30 tornados swept through the state destroying entire neighborhoods and towns killing over 250 Alabamians. The devastation is unbelievable. The loss of lives is unparalleled and the cost incalculable. It will be years before the recovery is complete.
Almost prophetically the Legislature was preparing to recess in order to put the final stamp to the budgets and gather public input on congressional redistricting. The law requires congressional lines to be redrawn after each 10-year census to ensure equal representation based on population.
Most states require an entire Special Session. However, our new Republican House and Senate have chosen to save time and money by sandwiching the reapportionment issue within the Regular Session. They have used the two week recess to hold public hearings and assess citizen input from around the state and then act on a plan. Therefore, both the budgets and congressional redistricting will be put to bed at the close of the Regular Session by June 9.
Crafting the budgets has been difficult to say the least. Although the Education and General Fund Budgets have been passed by both houses, there are slight differences between the Senate and House versions. Therefore, conference committees have been appointed to iron out the details.
The Education Budget will cut the average teacher’s take home pay by close to $1,000.00 per year and increase class sizes by cutting over 1,000 teaching positions statewide.
The General Fund is even more austere. If the economy were not devastating enough the tornado tragedy has created havoc with the budget. The Governor recommended and the Legislature agreed to cut all extra agencies and all historic allocations from the budget. The sacred cows were Medicaid and prisons. All other state agencies were slashed by at least 20 percent. Many are taking a 30 percent reduction or more.
One of the few organizations to survive was the revered Retired Senior Volunteer Program (“RSVP”). This group also survived a 1980’s barebones budget crunch during the last Wallace administration. Legislators who really know their districts realize the magnitude of popularity that RSVP enjoys throughout the state. Each week 12,000 retired senior citizen volunteers go to work for state and local agencies, departments, and educational venues. In fact, last year over 5,000 volunteers worked nearly 2 million hours at state agencies. The cost to the state for these volunteer workers was 20 cents per hour.
This new group of GOP legislators has been focused. It is the most disciplined partisan body in memory. They have been like a well organized army, especially the Senate, which has voted lockstep with party orders. They very rarely get out of line. In one rare instance Senator Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, offered an amendment to the Education Budget that was extemporaneous. Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh publicly chastised Orr by going to the microphone and angrily saying Orr must not have been listening in the caucus meeting.
The same loyalty has not been shown to the Governor. While in most cases they have all been on the same page, there is a definite undercurrent or shadow campaign being orchestrated by Bob Riley’s friends. It appears they do not want to give up the ship. Riley’s primary surrogate is freshman Senator Bryan Taylor of Prattville. Taylor has not only stepped on most of his colleagues’ toes but also the Governor’s with grandstanding displays during the Session.
During the height of Gov. Bentley’s mission to respond to the state’s greatest natural disaster, Taylor brazenly introduced a bill to transfer the Department of Public Safety away from the Governor and to the Attorney General. Bentley, as expected, rebuked Taylor in a sharply worded letter. In his defense, Attorney General Luther Strange said he did not request the proposal nor did he endorse it. Strange’s spokesperson said the Attorney General’s Office was not even consulted on the bill before it was introduced. Taylor, who was on Gov. Riley’s staff this time last year, was left standing alone.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.