INSIDE THE STATEHOUSE
by Steve Flowers
Sometimes the best thing that the legislature can do in a session is to pass very little legislation. That can be said of this year’s regular legislative session, which ended several weeks ago. Not many bills made it through the legislative labyrinth.
Gov. Robert Bentley made a proposed $800 million prison construction bond issue the cornerstone of his legislative agenda. It failed but not surprising given Bentley’s irrelevance in the legislative process. The surprising aspect is that the proposal got any traction at all. It came close to passing even though it looked like something that Gerald Wallace would dream up.
Bentley’s prison proposal called for borrowing $800 million in a bond issue with no concrete way to pay back the debt from a disastrously broke General Fund budget. It was a total secret as to where the four prisons were going to be built. I am sure this resonated well with senators and representatives who have prisons in their district or close by. Those prisons in places like Escambia, St. Clair, Elmore and Barbour, to name a few, are the largest employers in those counties.
There are also serious questions about the design method proposed for the men’s prisons that would have allowed a single architectural firm to get the contract for all three mega men’s prisons. In addition, one general contractor was going to get the contract for all four prisons. One bonding firm was going to get the deal to float the bonds. It sounds to me like some folks were going to get rich on this deal. Legislators were asked to buy a pig in a poke.
Legislators did pass both budgets. In fact, they passed them early in the session. Since passing the budgets is the only constitutional mandate for a session, I would give this session a C+. However, since they killed some bad legislation, I might rate the session a B-. Then again, their failure to vote to allow their constituents the opportunity to vote on a lottery may drop them back to a C.
It is beyond comprehension how a legislator could not vote to let their people vote on keeping their money in state. Alabamians buy lottery tickets. They just drive to Georgia, Florida and Tennessee to get them. Thus, giving our money to these states. It is as though they are saying, here Florida, we are so rich you can have some of our money.
They chose instead to cut the Medicaid budget, which will force cuts to services like adult’s and children’s pharmacy and outpatient dialysis. It will also lead to cuts in payments to physicians. Medicaid undergirds Alabama’s entire healthcare delivery system. More than half the births in the state and 47 percent of the children, as well as 60 percent of Alabama’s nursing home residents are covered by Medicaid. Bentley had repeatedly asked for more money for Medicaid but the legislature ignored his pleas.
The governor was on the sidelines on a proposed gas tax increase for roads and bridges in the state. This proposal never really got off the ground. It appears that the road builders and certain mayors have very little influence in the legislature.
Even though the legislature passed a barebones General Fund budget, which cuts state services and state employees’ take home pay again, the Special Education Budget was another story. With the upturn in the economy the Education coffers are flush.
The state’s $6.3 billion Education Trust Fund Budget was the largest since 2008. It included increases for transportation, classroom supplies and a four percent raise for teachers. The Budget also provided full funding for Education Employees Health Insurance (PEEHIP). However, that increase was offset by the PEEHIP Board voting to increase the cost of individual plans from $15-$30 a month and family plans from $177 to $207 a month.
There were hints by the Governor that a Special Session may be called for late summer to address the Medicaid problem and his prison bond issue. However, with clouds hovering over the Governor and Speaker of the House, the spectacle of a Special Session is doubtful.
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.