Bentley defends earlier than expected Special Session: The timing is right
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Governor Robert Bentley (R-AL), fresh off his declaration for a Special Session of the Alabama Legislature, made a guest appearance on the Matt Murphy Show Monday morning to discuss the swirl of issues surrounding the state’s budget crisis.
“I’ve met with three-fourths of the House and half of the Senate, individually, and I believe that they are on board with what I want to do which is fundamentally change the way that we budget in this state,” Governor Bentley stressed in refrain he would repeat throughout the interview. “That’s been my goal from the beginning. It’s not taxes, It’s not gambling, it’s not any of that stuff; it’s fundamentally changing the way we budget in Alabama and if we don’t do that, we’re not solving the problem.”
The governor said he supports many of the proposals suggested by the legislature including budget consolidation reform, the unearmarking of funds, but thinks they would only partially solve the problem.
To make available growth funds to a General Fund plagued by stagnant revenue streams, Bentley recommended shifting the Use Tax from the Education Trust Fund (ETF), adding he would replace it with some other taxes so that the education budget is not shortchanged.
When the issue of new taxes arose, Bentley had no shortage of recommendations. Echoing his suggestion from the Regular Session this Spring, the governor proposed the legislature pass a cigarette and tobacco tax he estimates will raise $70 million. Of the taxes proposed by the governor to fill the General Fund’s budget hole, the tobacco tax increase has arguably been the most popular among legislators.
“Businesses need to be involved in this also,” Governor Bentley continued. “We are putting it on the very large income people and the cap is gonna be raised. [The legislators have all] agreed to this.”
Bentley also mentioned a tax on soft drinks, a “soda tax,” as an alternative to what he sees as “less desirable” options such as the elimination of the FICA deduction. “The soda tax was mentioned by about 65 to 75 percent of the [legislators] that I talked to. They all mentioned a soda tax. It is an alternative to the removal of the FICA deduction.”
The governor then stressed that there were several areas in the General Fund where cuts would not be accepted.
“We’re not going to cut state parks, we’re not going cut our highway patrol, we’re not going to cut mental health, we’re not gonna cut our hospitals so that they can’t even operate. The people of Alabama don’t want that,” he said in response to the legislature’s budget relying solely on budget cuts passed during the Regular Session, which he vetoed promptly upon reception.
In his special session declaration, Bentley specifically chose to exclude the consideration of gambling legislation, absent a two-thirds majority in both houses. “It will put not one penny in the 2016 budget,” he said. “[There is] No need to look at something that will not fund the 2016 budget.”
An Alabama Supreme Court decision, however, makes clear that the legislature may consider any constitutional amendments it desires with a 3/5ths vote—a slightly shorter hurdle.
One of the sharpest points of contention surrounding the Special Session has been the timing of when it was called. Many legislators made it clear that they did not expect a call until mid-August and were taken aback by the Governor’s sudden declaration.
“We had some discussions. Most of those discussions came from across the street. I listened. Just because I listened they thought I agreed to a certain time; I had not. They said mid-August would be a good time and I said ‘That might be a good time.’
“I never said that was exactly when we were gonna do this. I decided to do it because I think the timing is right. I have talked to enough of the legislators that I believe that the membership is ready. The members are ready but I don’t know that the leadership is ready.”
Leadership’s response has been to effectivly refuse to give the Governor a Special Session in the month of July—the state legislature plans to convene at 4:00 on Monday and will promptly adjourn until August 3 shortly thereafter.
“I think they’re cutting off their nose to spite their face when you have only so many days to operate,” Bentley responded.
According to the Alabama Constitution, the legislature has 30 days to meet 12 times to address the goals of the Special Session.