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Alabama Legislature called into surprise session: What it means and why you should care

Gov. Robert Bentley delivers the 2015 State of the State Address, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, in the Old House Chamber of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. (Photo: Governor's Office, Jamie Martin)
Gov. Robert Bentley delivers the 2015 State of the State Address, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, in the Old House Chamber of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. (Photo: Governor’s Office, Jamie Martin)

WHAT’S GOING ON

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley caught the entire Alabama political universe by surprise on Thursday by announcing he will call the state legislature into a Special Session set to begin on Monday.

The Special Session itself comes as no surprise. When Bentley vetoed the legislature’s budget — which relied solely on cuts to balance, rather than on the tax increases favored by the Governor — it was clear a Special Session would be necessary to fund the government before the new Fiscal Year begins in October. But since the Regular Session concluded in June, lawmakers have been given the impression Bentley would call them back in August, giving them a couple of months to plan and research various longterm budget solutions.

Legislative leaders responded publicly to Bentley’s surprise announcement with bewilderment.

“Governor Bentley gave us his word that no special session would be called until sometime around mid-August,” said House Speaker Mike Hubbard. “Given the fact that our committees are still working diligently using the timeline that the governor originally provided us, we will have to take all of those factors into consideration as the Legislature convenes in this unexpected session on Monday.”

“I don’t know why he has, in my opinion, jumped the gun on this,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) told the Anniston Star. “We were moving forward, and then ‘Boom!'”

Privately, legislators’ bewilderment turns into anger.

“Here we are working on one timeline and the person who gave us that timeline wakes up one morning and decides he wants a new timeline,” said one senator who was granted anonymity so he could speak freely. “We couldn’t agree on a plan for the entire Regular Session and nothing has really changed since then. I just don’t see how calling us back four days from now does anything to solve our budget problems, and I thought that was the goal.”

That sentiment seems to be shared by many Republicans in the legislature. But multiple sources close to Bentley say the Governor has a good reason to speed up the timeline.

“What would gaming interest do if they had five more weeks before a Special Session?” One of the Governor’s confidants asked Yellowhammer rhetorically Thursday afternoon.

As pro-tax as Bentley has been in recent months, he has been equally as anti-gambling. Gaming interests have been gearing up for a big push by launching an advocacy organization and enlisting the support of major players in the business community. By calling the legislature back suddenly, Bentley may believe he is getting ahead of a big-money push to advance gambling as the solution to the state’s budget woes.

Other political insiders believe Alabama’s BP Oil Spill settlement could be playing a role in the timing decision.

South Alabama lawmakers on both the state and federal levels have expressed outrage with the $2.3 billion settlement because the majority of the money will not be flowing to Baldwin and Mobile counties, which took the brunt of the environmental and economic damage as a result of the spill.

On Thursday it was revealed that Alabama’s $2.3 billion dollar settlement would not be paid out in equal portions over 18 years, as was initially thought. Instead, about $200 million will be plopped into Alabama’s beleaguered General Fund Budget as soon as the settlement is approved, with the rest coming in subsequent years.

Bentley has insisted the settlement would not be a fix for the state’s General Fund Budget, but many legislators would welcome the opportunity to plug the hole with the newfound money and buy themselves some additional time to fix the budget issues longterm.

WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN

In order from least likely to most likely…

Take hike: Enough Republicans members of the Senate are so staunchly anti-tax at this point it is hard to imagine any tax increase proposal gaining enough support to actually pass. Soda and cigarette taxes have pockets of support, even among Republicans, and a business privilege tax increase could be on the table. But most lawmakers realize the campaign ads they’ll ultimately face for raising taxes won’t specify which ones they raised.

Gambling expansion: The advantage Sen. Del Marsh’s gambling expansion plan has is that it is basically the only proposal that has already been fully spelled out. The disadvantage it faces is that it already failed to garner enough support in the Regular Session and it’s hard to imagine that changing much heading into the Special.

Major reforms: Momentum has been building among conservative lawmakers who believe the current budget mess represents the perfect opportunity to reform Alabama’s dysfunctional budgeting process. Alabama is one of only three states with two separate budgets and roughly 91 percent of the state’s money is earmarked, making it impossible for lawmakers to set spending priorities in lean years. On top of that, the Education Budget has a couple hundred million dollar surplus while the General Fund faces a couple hundred million dollar shortfall.

Many young legislators are ready for reform, but have faced skepticism — and sometimes outright opposition — from some of the more veteran members. It’s hard to imagine a massive overhaul of the budgeting process, but some reforms are definitely possible.

A whole bunch of nothing: Legislative leaders are already planning to come in on Monday, then immediately adjourn for three entire weeks while they continue researching options. There are a lot of conservatives who do not understand why it is such a big deal to have passed a budget with significant cuts, like they did during the Regular Session. There hasn’t been any discernible public outcry against the fat trimming, and when was the last time a Republican got beat for cutting government?

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

As Mark Twain famously said, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session,” so it’s worth paying attention any time lawmakers convene in Montgomery. This time is even more important because of what is at stake. Will the Republican majority continue streamlining government and making reforms, or tack left in a search for more government revenue?


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