Local lawmakers back Riley’s bill requests
By M.J. Ellington
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MONTGOMERY — Economically, Alabama is on a roll. Educationally, Alabama is developing high-tech programs.
But long-term, Alabama has work to do to establish financial stability and prepare for the future.
The Legislature goes into special session at 5 p.m. Monday to take up bills increasing the state’s authority to borrow bond money for capital improvements — specifically, incentives to recruit large industry to the state.
Companion legislation would set up long-term trust funds to pay for retired state and education employee health insurance costs.
While some lawmakers disagreed about calling the special session the week before the regular session begins, area legislators say there is a need for the bills Gov. Bob Riley wants them to tackle this week.
Economic analysts agree.
Sam Addy, an economics professor and head of the Center for Business and Economic Research at The University of Alabama, said the state has a chance to position itself for long-term stability with the proposals lawmakers will consider this week.
“I think the recent past shows that Alabama is on the map as far as making industry successful,” Addy said. He believes the state needs the flexibility to borrow more through bond issues, partly because its tax structure allows few other ways to generate such funds.
“I actually admire the governor for taking this step now,” he said.
Addy said Alabama’s economy is growing and can absorb the increased bond debt the governor wants. If the state succeeds in recruiting more types of industry as a result, Addy said, that helps the state diversify its job base.
In lean years, he said, diversification will help the state maintain jobs and economic stability.
Riley called the special session following an industry-recruiting trip to Germany and Austria earlier this month.
He said the state needs the increase in borrowing power soon to finance incentive packages for companies considering building plants in Alabama. He wants the Legislature to increase the state’s bond debt ceiling from its current $350 million limit to $700 million.
Between 5,000 and 11,000 jobs could come with the industry Riley hopes to lure to the state, he said.
The health insurance trust funds would help pay the state’s cost for future retiree health insurance and help secure a lower interest rate on the bonds.
Area lawmakers believe Riley’s requests are valid. They said timing is a factor because Alabama voters must approve the bond increase in an election by June if the state has a chance to recruit the industries. Riley said the industries in question will decide on their sites this summer.
Bills passed later would be too late to set up an election in June.
Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, initially objected to the special session’s timing. He preferred to recess the regular session soon after it began and reconvene in special session. But late last week, Little said the Senate’s Democratic leadership is on the same page as Riley.
Little expects discussion of additional legislative oversight on the board that makes decisions about bond expenditures.
Sens. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and Tom Butler, D-Madison, said they support both proposals because of their potential for job growth and economic stability.
Although Butler originally questioned the need for an early special session, last week he said he accepts the governor’s decision. The key is to recruit industry with high-paying jobs to Alabama, and he believes the current negotiations could do that.
Orr, now beginning his first term, said the governor’s four years of experience leading the state help him know when it’s important to call the Legislature into session.
Reps. Bill Dukes, D-Decatur, Ronald Grantland, D-Hartselle, Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, and Henry White, D-Athens, support the measures.
The lawmakers said they received letters from Riley outlining reasons for the special session. Lawmakers contacted Friday afternoon said they still did not have copies of the legislation.
Hammon said he hopes lawmakers see the measures before they go into session.
“I will support the governor, but if they wait until late Monday, it may be hard to get them through committees because the Democrats will want to make sure they don’t lose any control over the bond money,” Hammon added.
It takes a minimum of five days to pass legislation, and Hammon said lawmakers could work through the weekend if there are hang-ups.
Grantland said it bothers him not to have more time to study the legislation, but he is not surprised. He thinks the session will be over by Friday.
Dukes, former longtime mayor of Decatur, said negotiating with industry is sensitive work and he fully supports the governor.
“I do not believe there will be problems,” Dukes said. “Time is very, very important to this, and everyone understands that.”
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