INSIDE THE STATEHOUSE
By Steve Flowers
During the press conference three weeks ago announcing the historic BP settlement and windfall for the state, Gov. Bentley repeatedly said, “The $55 million a year to the General Fund is fantastic but it will not solve the state’s long term financial woes. It only accomplishes about 12 percent of what we need. We’re still going to have a Special Session to address the need for new revenue and we will call it for late summer.”
Bentley and the Legislature were unable to agree on a General Fund budget during the Regular Session. During the interim the House Budget Committee has been meeting and really working on the budget problems. They have been looking into each department of the state meticulously. They have met extensively with department heads and they have determined that these agencies have been cut to the bone.
The Budget Committee was set to finish their evaluations and offer a solution by mid-August. While legislators were working diligently trying to craft a plan, the Governor back pedaled on his initial $541 million tax package. He said, “Congress’ vote to fully fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program reduces the amount of money needed to balance the General Fund Budget.”
Gov. Bentley totally reversed field and said, “I’ll probably take the budget passed by the legislature and just add items to it and not really change it at all. Just add the spending items to it and then I will probably put in some conditionals to take care of other things like debt payments,” as though he had any say in the budget.
Then out of nowhere the Governor decided to call a Special Session for Monday with no forewarning or plan. It caught legislators of both parties by surprise to say the least. “I’m just flabbergasted. I just can’t believe it,” House Ways and Means Chairman Steve Clouse said. Democratic House Leader Craig Ford said, “I just met with the Governor last week and he said we were going to have a Special Session in mid-August.” Bentley also told Senate Majority Leader Del Marsh and Speaker Mike Hubbard the same thing. These two Republican leaders of the legislature were livid. They expressed their disdain and disregard for the Governor by quickly ignoring the governor and adjourning until August 3.
It appears that the Governor’s only participation in the legislative process during the Special Session will be that he called it. The Governor’s behavior as of late can only be described as bizarre. It is a though he seems distracted. His ability to have any input into the legislative or budget process for the remainder of his term has been diminished significantly. He is essentially been rendered irrelevant in the legislative process. In fact, the custodian in the House of Representatives probably has more legislative influence than Bentley. The legislature will work alone crafting a budget for the coming fiscal year, while Bentley will be relegated to being a lame duck comedic sideshow to amuse them as they try to address the perceived problems of the General Fund.
However, a recent study revealed that Alabama’s financial picture and future is much brighter than most states. The Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the nation’s leading policy research group, stated that most states face uncertain financial futures, a good many states do not have constitutional balanced budget provisions like we do and most do not have as prudently and properly funded public employee retirement system programs.
The study revealed that the top five states are Alaska, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Florida. The Dakotas, Nebraska and Alaska are flush because of natural resources like oil. Florida rakes in sales tax from tourism.
The states in the worst condition are California, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Illinois. The worst ranked state was Illinois. There the government has used funds set aside for future pensions to pay for current expenses.
Alabama is ranked the 13th best state in America when it comes to fiscal soundness, planning and spending. In comparison, with surrounding states, Georgia is ranked 26th and Mississippi is 33rd. Louisiana and Kentucky are even worse at 35th and 45th, respectively. The only sister southern states doing better than us are Tennessee at number 8 and Florida at number 5.
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.