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Leadership at State House Working to Keep Doors Open

By Susan Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY–The halls of Alabama’s State House may get hot during September unless the “Evergreen Appropriation” provision is invoked. Without help, should a special session be called during September legislators, who will not be paid, will gather, in a building with no air conditioning, and find a support staff on furlough.

“The State House would shut down until we got some money appropriated to us,” said Harris. “They can certainly come down here but there won’t be any air conditioner running.”

The provision enacted in the 1980s appears to only have been used once in 1991. It allows the Legislature to appeal to the Director of Finance for additional funding at the end of a fiscal year when its funds drop below $100,000.

Although Secretary of the Senate Patrick Harris began planning immediately when proration was announced in April, the funds still are not stretching far enough to the end of the fiscal year. He said, “As of the end of this week, I am going to be at a little under $100,000 [to fund the State House for the remainder of August and September].”

“There has not been a fiscal crisis in Alabama of this magnitude since the Great Depression and I thought it would be useful for us to examine what he and the staff have accomplished in the face of greatly diminished budget resources,” said Senator Gerald Dial (R-Lineville) wrote in the letter. “My sense is that Secretary Harris and the staff have been responsible stewards of our budget resources and will continue to do that as we go forward.”

The legislative budget covers all of the expenses of the including legislators’ salaries, staff salaries, utilities, office supplies, security, etc.

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In an interview with “Alabama Political Reporter” in April, Harris laid out his plan of action to cut the budget in reaction to proration.

Regarding severe cuts in security personnel,

Harris said, “This [security] is not the only place we had to cut costs. We are not purchasing any more stationary, business cards or office supplies for the [administrative] offices. We are reducing payments for service contracts for the computer systems and for the Xerox machines. We are discussing a furlough program for employees. We are looking at every possible way we can to cut costs.” At the time he estimated that the costs to security alone would save $120,000. He also cut all travel expenses related to the legislature.

Harris said that the appropriation was under budget from the beginning of the year.

Beginning of year appropriations were $19.7 million for the Senate. Proration cost reductions were $2.3 million.

“When they say [legislators], live within your means, we have to have sufficient funds to operate to cover all of those costs. I can’t figure my exact overhead, I can get close to what my overhead is but because there are so many moving parts and so many different members that have so many different duties, it is difficult to get that exact cost,” said Harris.

He said that the legal fees for the reapportionment lawsuits are paid by the legislative budget. “They sue the legislature. I have no control over the cost of those legal fees but I have to pay that. We have paid almost $90,000 in attorney’s fees up through April 30. I’ve still got outstanding bills because we have ongoing litigation. I have no control over that,” Harris said.

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“It costs this much money to operate this branch of government. It’s not an agency, it is a branch of government and it is required by the Constitution to be provided,” said Harris.

There are other departments within the legislative budget so he was able to appropriate some money from the Pro Tem’s office and receive $1 million from the Governor out of the Departmental Emergency Fund. Also, included in the budget amount, other departments are covered including Examiner of Public Accounts, the Legislative Fiscal Office and the Legislative Reference Service.

They removed a line item in the previous year’s budgets for the Office of the Clerk of the House. That account was zeroed out and transferred some of the money to the legislative budget.

“At the low end of what we started with, we were making some adjustments and hopefully we were going to get through the end of the year. Then they hit us with proration and that ate everything up. You can prorate everything else but you can’t prorate members salaries. I’ve got to pay them,” said Harris.

In planning after proration Harris said, “We knew we were going to have to use this provision in the code that they refer to as the ‘Evergreen Provision’ to get additional money to help get us through the end of the year.”

“We have costs that we have to meet. We have implemented all of the top cost-saving methods including letting people go.” He said, “Even when I layoff people, I still have to pay separation costs, unemployment, any accumulated sick leave, etc. and that comes out of the budget.”

In the last two years he has eliminated 9 senate staff positions. Eight positions have been replaced by entry-level people–people that had to be replaced such as secretaries–taking high salaries and replacing them with entry-level salaries saving about $340,000. He has combined 4 senior positions saving another $300,000.

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“I have cut my personnel costs per year up here by $1.4 million. We are working at it hard,” said Harris.

Harris is asking for $2 million but it can only be given in $500,000 increments. Finance Director Markeeta Davis who will determine which agencies to draw the funds. He said if needed, “She can go to the Educational Trust Fund and get it. The code section says she can get it from ‘whatever source.’”

“If you go back this year we supplemented corrections and the court system. We did not provide the Legislature with any supplemental appropriation. The reason is because we have this ‘Evergreen Provision’ to use at the end of the year. At the end of the year we knew that if things got really bad, and if we had a problem and if we had special sessions that we could implement this section without having to give ourselves a supplemental appropriation,” said Harris.

By the end of this week, Harris said his funds will be below $100,000 which enables him to submit his request to the Director of Finance who has the next approval level and the ability to move funds from some state agencies to support the last few weeks of the state’s fiscal year.

Written By

DIG DEEPER