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Alabama Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, with Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, on the floor of the Senate at the State House in Montgomery in a Feb. 15, 2005, file photo. The Senate will elect officers today in its organizational session and make committee assignments and officially receive the results of the 2006 statewide elections.
AP photo
Alabama Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, with Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, on the floor of the Senate at the State House in Montgomery in a Feb. 15, 2005, file photo. The Senate will elect officers today in its organizational session and make committee assignments and officially receive the results of the 2006 statewide elections.

Senate leadership undecided as organizational session opens

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Members of the state Senate say they don't expect to know until they start voting Tuesday whether the upper chamber of the Legislature will be controlled by the Democratic majority or by a coalition of Republicans and independent-minded Democrats.

Sen. Jim Preuitt, D-Talladega, said he expects a coalition of seven Democrats and 12 Republicans to hold together and provide the majority to elect him president pro tem of the 35-member Senate in the organizational session that opens at noon Tuesday.

If it does, the GOP will gain a measure of influence in the Senate it has not had in more than a century.

But Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, said he believes some senators could change sides before the vote and form an all-Democratic coalition that most likely would put Sen. Hinton Mitchem, D-Union Grove, in control. The Senate leader for the past eight years, Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, is not seeking another term as pro tem.

"It is still a very fluid situation. Everybody is working hard. We're in the fourth quarter with less than two minutes to go and we expect to have at least 18 votes tomorrow," Little said.

In its organizational session, the Legislature elects officers in the House and Senate, makes committee assignments and officially receives the results of the 2006 statewide elections.

The House is expected to elect Rep. Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, to a record-tying third term as speaker. Hammett has no opposition. The late Jimmy Clark of Eufaula is the only other lawmaker to serve more than two terms as House speaker.

Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley is recovering from a stroke, but she is expected to preside over the Senate during the organizational session, her chief of staff, John Hamm, said Monday. Secretary of the Senate McDowell Lee would preside if Baxley was unable to attend.

Jim Folsom Jr., a Democrat from Cullman, was elected lieutenant governor in November but will not take office until Jan. 15.

If the vote for a new leader of the Senate ends in a tie, Baxley, a Democrat, can vote to break the tie. But Lee, who is not an elected official, said if he's presiding, he can't vote.

"If it's a tie, it's a tie and we just go from there," Lee said.

A tie is a possibility if the Senate fails to seat Sen. Larry Means, D-Attalla, whose election has been challenged in court for failing to file his campaign finance report on time with the Secretary of State's office. Means is committed to vote for Preuitt, and without his vote the Democratic majority would only need to change one vote to keep control of the Senate.

Lee said there is nothing in Senate procedures that would bar the Senate from seating Means, but Little said he expects the Senate will have to vote to decide if Means can participate.

"I think that question will be ultimately decided by the Senate and that's very difficult for me because Larry is a personal friend," Little said.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Charles Price has scheduled a hearing for Friday on the suit against Means, but no court action is expected before the start of the organizational session.

"I'm going to be there and I'm going to vote," Means said Monday. He said he expects Preuitt to be elected president pro tem.

"There's no reason to think otherwise," Means said.

Gov. Bob Riley has been talking to senators trying to gain support for the Preuitt-led coalition. Riley said in an interview with The Associated Press that he has been assured by Preuitt that his proposed budgets and other legislation will get a fair hearing. In the past, he said, his budget proposals have been substituted in Legislative committees after as little as five minutes of debate.

"Sen. Preuitt has stated publicly on a lot of different occasions that he would give the governor's ideas and proposals a fair hearing and allow them to be passed out of committee. That essentially would be a sea change when compared to the way we've always done it," Riley said.

"The only thing I'm asking is for us to be able to have a legitimate, open, highly transparent debate so the people of Alabama understand what the debate is," the governor said.

But Little said a Senate led by the Democratic majority would also give Riley's agenda a fair hearing.

"I'm pledged to work with him. To be honest, he got 95 percent of what he wanted in the past. The only time that we've stood against him is on diverting money away from the education budget and our children," Little said.

Riley has fought with Democratic leaders in the Legislature for four years over using money from the education budget for purposes not traditionally funded with tax revenue earmarked for education.

Little said he is concerned that if the Preuitt coalition wins control of the Senate, it will give the Republicans and Riley control over the Senate committee that writes the education budget.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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