INSIDE THE STATEHOUSE
By Steve Flowers
The regular legislative session ended without a General Fund Budget. As we look back politically on the first half of the year, the dilemma with the General Fund has been the dominant issue. It has been at the forefront since the beginning of the year and it is not yet resolved.
After five months of wrangling over the beleaguered General Fund Budget, a late summer special session is in the works. The state must have a budget by October 1, when the new fiscal year begins.
While legislators are home for a while to let things cool off, hopefully they are listening to their constituents. You can rest assured that one thing they are hearing from Joe Constituent is “if the only thing you have to do constitutionally in a five month regular session is pass the budgets, then why didn’t you do it?” Now it is going to cost the state another $400,000 for a special session.
However, their constituents are probably not convinced that the state needs any new revenue. That is the problem. These GOP legislators are probably reflective of their constituencies. We are a very Republican, conservative, Tea Party, no tax state.
Gov. Robert Bentley is not your typical tax and spend liberal by any means. He is a true blue conservative Republican. However, he has to govern the state and he sees the big picture and the picture is not pretty.
Gov. Bentley, like 21 other state governors, are having problems with their state finances. The good doctor governor unveiled a $540 million tax increase proposal to shore up the General Fund. The heart of his proposal, some $410 million of the $540 million he said the state needed, centered around two consumer taxes. First, $200 million would be derived from increasing state sales tax on automobiles from 2 percent to 4 percent and $210 million would come from increasing the cigarette tax by 82.5 cents per pack. There were a handful of tax proposals that would close glaring loopholes that certain corporations have politically derived over the years.
Bentley’s entire plan was ridiculed at the beginning and ignored throughout the session. His bills were met with indifference and were dead on arrival. They never even got out of committee. He could hardly even find a sponsor. The disregard for Bentley has been the most perplexing scenario of the year.
However, about half way through the session a good many Republican legislators realized that Bentley was not crying wolf and, even if they did not agree with his solution, he was right that something had to be done if state government was going to function.
The first leader to step forward was President Pro Tem of the State Senate Del Marsh (R-Anniston). Marsh offered a solution that might work. His plan would allow the people of Alabama the right to vote on a lottery to resolve the budget problem. It would require a vote of the people because it is a constitutional amendment. The only vote a legislator would be required to make would be to allow it to be put on the ballot.
The governor would not be involved in a constitutional amendment. However, inexplicably, the governor came out against it. It would raise the same amount of money as his tax plan. However, it does not seem to matter to House or Senate members what the governor thinks.
This solution is the most appealing to the average Alabamian. Even if they do not like gambling, they do not like seeing their money flowing to our surrounding states and funding schools and government in Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi.
The House came up with a complicated hodgepodge of taxes and fee increases that went nowhere because the Senate told them they were not going to vote for taxes, so why blemish their no tax record for naught.
The special session may give some power to the governor. It will take a three fifths vote to deviate from his call. They will have to focus on the budget. Everything is on the table including a cigarette tax and gambling. Some blend of Bentley’s tax proposals and Marsh’s lottery proposal could form a solution. If it does, the extra expense of a special session may be money well spent.
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.