By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Thursday, June 11, the Alabama House of Representatives met for the last time of the 2015 legislative regular session. Only 75 of the 105 members of the House showed up for the 10:00 am roll call. Those that did got to hear a brief rehash of the State General Fund (SGF) budget crisis.
At the center of that storm is state Representative Steve Clouse (R-Ozark), who chairs the Ways and Means General Fund Committee which writes the SGF budget. That budget has to pass his committee before it goes to the full state House of Representatives where he carries the budget on the House floor. If it passes the House it goes to the state Senate where they can accept it, amend it, or replace it with their own budget.
Chairman Clouse told reporters on Thursday that the state legislature needs to have a plan before it comes back for a special session.
Most legislators were already well aware of the SGF situation, as the State has been discussing the SGF budget since February, when Alabama Governor Robert Bentley announced that there was a crisis and that he had a plan to respond to the crisis. Almost no one liked his plan to raise taxes by an incredible $541 million a year and that never got so much as a debate in committee.
While almost everyone viewed the Bentley plan as politically impossible, the Republican supermajority did not go into the regular session with their own plan. The legislature spent the first 40 percent of the regular session bemoaning the budget crisis, while doing nothing about it. Then we went through a long period where every little faction in the legislature came forward with their own plans almost weekly. Raiding the money from the Education Trust Fund, expanding Indian gaming, a lottery, raising car sales taxes, allowing casinos at the four dog tracks, charging farmers and construction guys more for the lube oil for their tractors, soft drink taxes, insurance taxes, utility taxes, bank taxes, car lease taxes, tobacco taxes, etc. were all discussed until finally the legislature did pass a budget which slashed the General Fund by approximately $198 million for fiscal 2015 levels. The Governor vetoed that budget creating a crisis in which the legislature will have to come back for a special session.
Chairman Clouse told his committee that in the special session all option will be considered including passing the “bare bones” budget that passed last week. Clouse said, “Hopefully we can add funds to that.”
Clouse said that his committee will be working vigorously and will study every option. Chairman Clouse asked that the appropriations subcommittee chaired by Rep. Ken Johnson (R-Moulton) work on the proposals that we have already passed. The legislature passed SB216 which allowed state agencies to raise their fees at the rate of inflation or no more than 2 percent per year going back up to ten years. The Chairman asked Johnson to see how that can affect the agencies’ budgets going in to the next year.
There were estimates last month that there could be as much as $60 million a year in additional general fund revenue there in that legislation alone, which has already passed.
Clouse said that he wanted to see a preliminary report from the joint task force which is studying RSA. Any ideas that any committee member has or any legislators have should be vetted here before they go to the full House.
“I am confident that we can find a solution for the people of Alabama,” Chairman Clouse said.
State Representative Rich Wingo (R-Tuscaloosa County) said that he wanted a plan, “So we are not back again here next year (with a new SGF crisis).”
The committee lamented that the oversight committee did not make it through the Senate. Critics called that the “star chamber” bill. They discussed that the House General Fund committee could take some of their responsibilities through the next year.
Rep. Wingo said that the Committee needs a better way than the budget hearings to understand the working of the State agencies. Wingo proposed investing committee members themselves in the workings of the state agencies to better understand what they needed and how they operate to, “Give us the ability to make educated decisions.”
Clouse said that we, “Need to delve into that before the special session.” We need all of our members meeting with these agencies. Clouse then divided them into pairs and assigned committee members to go investigate the state agencies.
Rep. Victor Gaston (R-Mobile) asked about what benefits that the agencies will gain from legislation passed in the regular session giving them more freedom in how they use their money.
Clouse said that depends on the agency. “Some are hamstrung by earmarks where they are spending money,” we are trying to delve into the specifics. Chairman Clouse asked that the committee members visiting the agencies delve a little deeper into that agency including what federal mandates they might be under.
Clouse told reporters we need to have a plan and need to see if the voters are there before the special session. “We have to have a budget in place by September 30, if that is the bare bones budget it would be a great disappointment.”