By Minority Leader Rep Craig Ford
The governor called the Alabama Legislature into a special legislative session this summer with two things in mind: pass a lottery and pass a spending plan for the BP oil spill settlement. So far, the Legislature hasn’t done too well with passing either of these bills.
The lottery came as close to passing as any lottery bill has since Gov. Siegelman’s bill went to the voters in 1999, and I’d like to commend the governor for his leadership on getting the bill through the House, even though I disagreed with the split in funding.
After initially passing in the state Senate with the exact number of votes needed to pass, the bill came to the state House of Representatives where it nearly died twice.
The first time it nearly died was when the chairman of the House Tourism Committee failed to give proper notice of the meeting, as is required by the House rules. He tried to “suspend the rules” so the committee could meet anyway, which required approval of 84 members of the House. He got approval from 59, meaning the committee would be delayed by 24 hours and jeopardizing if the lottery could appear on ballots this November.
The second time the lottery nearly died was on the House floor. On the initial vote, the lottery received only 61 of the 63 votes needed for it to pass. However, the chairman was able to bring the lottery back up on a “motion to reconsider” and it passed the second time with 64 votes.
But, because the House had made some small changes to the bill, the lottery had to go back to the Senate.
When the lottery went back to the Senate, some of the pro-lottery senators were not in Montgomery and others changed their position after seeing the changes the House had made. When the lottery came back up for a vote, the Senators voted twice to kill it. Once a bill has been voted down twice, it is dead for that legislative session.
The death of the lottery means the BP bill is the only option left to address the state’s needs. The BP bill has passed the House, but now it’s fate rest in the hands of the same senators who just killed the lottery.
When the governor and the attorneys in the Attorney General’s office negotiated the BP oil spill settlement, they successfully secured an additional $1 billion for the state, arguing that it wasn’t just the gulf coast counties that were affected but all of the state when the state lost tax revenue that comes in from gulf tourism and business.
Now it is up to the Legislature to decide how to spend that $1 billion. Some legislators believe most, or all, of the money should go to Mobile and Baldwin counties since those counties are the ones that took the brunt of the fallout from the spill. They also argue that using that money to improve infrastructure in those counties would generate more business and tourism that would, in turn, generate more tax revenue that benefits the rest of the state.
Other legislators believe the BP money should be used to pay off as much of our state debt as possible. Since the Republicans took over leadership in the state, the state debt has rocketed up to nearly $700 million. The BP money could be used to pay a good portion of that down by taking out a new bond (i.e., new debt) to pay off the old debt. The new bond would then be paid off using the BP payments that will be coming in over the next 17 years.
The BP bill that has passed the House and is waiting its fate in the Senate is a compromise of these positions. It uses most of the money to pay down the debt, but still allocates $191 million to the coast for infrastructure improvements, and frees up $70 million for Medicaid.
This compromise is not a perfect bill, but it is a good bill. It is also the only bill that can get enough support to pass. The question is: Will the senators agree to it, or will they kill BP like they killed the lottery?
If the Senate doesn’t pass the BP bill, then the Legislature will have once again wasted the taxpayers’ money on a special legislative session because we failed to do the job we should’ve done earlier this year in the regular legislative session.
Rep. Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.