INSIDE THE STATEHOUSE
By Steve Flowers
We are in the final days of the first regular legislative session of the quadrennium. The session constitutionally has to end June 15. The governor and legislature are at a standoff. The financial dilemma in the State General Fund has not been addressed and the budgets are up in the air.
As the session began four months ago, Gov. Robert Bentley was the first to cry wolf. No Republican likes to say the word tax, much less propose such a solution or vote for such a blasphemous resolution.
The governor is a lifelong Republican and over two thirds of the legislature, both the House and Senate, are Republicans. These folks are real Republicans. Conservative does not describe most of these solons. Right wing reactionaries would be a more accurate description.
Therefore, Governor Bentley’s appeal to save our bare bones Medicaid program and keep the federal government from taking over our prisons, closing our state parks and doing away with state troopers and highways does not stir the hearts of a good many of these Republican Tea Party stalwarts. In fact, if truth were known, some could not care less if we simply did away with Medicaid or state government entirely.
However, something changed over the course of the Session. About half of the Republicans realized that Governor Bentley was not crying wolf. They have come to the realization that something has to be done and we really do have to provide some semblance of state services.
They never have given Governor Bentley’s $540 million tax package any consideration. It is as though he does not exist. I have never seen a governor treated with such complete disdain or irreverence, especially one as popular with the electorate and from the same political party. His tax increase proposals have not even been given a hearing, much less a committee vote. He had a hard time even getting a sponsor.
Bentley has been rendered irrelevant in the budget process. He has journeyed around the state touting his plan to Chamber of Commerce groups and civic clubs to no avail. He has shown remarkable political naïveté with this approach. If he sells the chamber members on his taxes, they first of all are probably not going to call their state senator and secondly they probably do not know who their senator or representative is, especially if they are from an urban area.
Even if Bentley is a voice in the wilderness and they do not fear him or respect him politically, they have bought into the concept and belief that something has to be done for the beleaguered general fund.
We are not alone in this budget crisis. At least 22 other states project budget shortfalls for the coming fiscal year. State Senator Del Marsh, the President Pro Tem of the State Senate, came forward with a bold move. The senate leader has proposed offering a constitutional amendment for the people of the state to vote on having a state lottery. The proposal would be on the ballot on September 15, just before the fiscal year begins on October 1. His plan would bring in about the same amount of money as Bentley’s tax plan.
Marsh’s argument is that gambling is here in every form. It is probably more prevalent and less harmful than alcohol and our people are sending these dollars to Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Mississippi. Indeed, Mississippi derives an amazing 11% of their entire state revenue from gambling and 12% of the patrons at their entertainment centers are from Alabama. Marsh says that he senses more support among senators to vote to allow their people to vote on a lottery than to vote for taxes.
The House seems to be somewhat rudderless for the first time since Mike Hubbard became Speaker. The Speaker seems to have lost some of his control of the House. It may be due to the felony trials he awaits in October.
In an awkward move, Hubbard proposed a hybrid small tax plan that suspiciously gave protection to the Indian gambling syndicate who desperately want to keep their monopoly on gambling in the state. A lottery and state taxed casinos would cook their golden goose.
Polling shows that if the lottery gets to a vote of the people it would pass overwhelmingly. We are only one of two states in America who derive no revenue from gambling. We are at a stalemate in the waning hours of the session. It looks like a Special Session may be necessary to resolve the budget crisis.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.