Regular session starts Tuesday
Record school construction bond issue expected to be on legislative agenda
By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer
MONTGOMERY — Fresh off a successful special session, the Alabama Legislature convenes Tuesday for its regular session, where lawmakers could enact a record school construction bond issue and new campaign accountability rules — if party tensions don't stop the action.
For legislators elected or re-elected in 2006, the regular session is their first chance to start keeping the promises they made to voters. For Republican Gov. Bob Riley, it's his first opportunity to see how the Democrat-controlled Legislature feels about his "Plan 2010" campaign platform now that he's a lame duck.
Senate Republicans have threatened to use stalling tactics to protest new Senate operating rules enacted by 18 Democrats who control the chamber. The Senate's 12 Republicans and the five Democrats who usually vote with them consider the new rules unfair because they allow the 18-member Democratic majority to stop any filibuster by the minority over the state budgets.
Sen. Larry Dixon, R-Montgomery, figures the minority won't have to talk long to get their message across. "The 18 can't keep their thumb on the 17 forever," he said.
Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., the Senate's Democratic presiding officer, said he's been encouraging the two sides to communicate and work out their differences. His hope, he said, is to make the 31/2-month-long regular session as productive as the one-week special session.
That session wrapped up Friday with the Legislature voting unanimously for a $400 million industrial incentive package recommended by the governor to recruit new industries.
The regular session kicks off at noon Tuesday, with Riley laying out his goals in his annual State of the State speech at 6 p.m. — a half-hour earlier than normal. The new time slot will allow him to get all or part of his speech aired live in TV stations' evening newscasts.
Once the session is under way, Senate Republicans who filibuster could find themselves talking at length about their own governor's proposals.
Senate President Pro Tem Hinton Mitchem, D-Albertville, said he plans for the Senate's first priority to be Riley's proposed bond issue for school construction and technology projects.
Riley initially talked about at least $500 million. But now he's saying the state's good economic climate will make "in excess of $750 million" possible. Some others are pushing for $1 billion.
No matter where it ends up, it will top the state's previous record of $550 million approved in 1998. That bond issue was used primarily to replace portable classrooms with permanent buildings.
House Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, said determining the size of the bond issue won't be the hardest part. It will be determining how much goes to K-12 schools and how much to two-year and four-year colleges.
"It will be the real contentious part of the process," he said.
In the House, Hammett said his priority is another issue backed by Riley — a ban on transferring campaign donations between political action committees to disguise the original source of the money.
The House has approved a PAC-to-PAC ban several times, only to see it die in the Senate. But this time around, the proposed ban is being backed by top legislators from both parties and some influential lobbyists, including teacher lobbyist Paul Hubbert.
"Some of us are tired of trying to hide money," Hubbert said.
Riley and some top legislators including Hammett also agree on another issue: requiring lobbyists to disclose what they spend entertaining public officials. Currently, lobbyists only have to file reports with the state Ethics Commission when they spend more than $250 in one day on one official.
Full disclosure "allows the general public to determine for themselves whether this would influence a legislator and a vote," Riley said.
Pay raises will be another big issue in the session. Lobbying groups for teachers and state employees will be seeking 7 percent raises. They would follow raises of 5 percent and 6 percent for the last two years.
"The money is there for a substantial raise" for teachers, Riley said, although he won't say how much until his State of the State speech Tuesday night.
For state employees, Riley said it will be much harder because tax revenue for the non-education functions of government isn't growing as fast as the tax revenue dedicated to public education.
"I'm going try to recommend as much as I think we can possibly afford," Riley said.
Riley also wants to put some money in taxpayers' pockets by enacting another income tax cut that would help families earning less than $100,000 per year.
Hammett said the tax cut would take away income taxes that support public schools, and it will have a hard time passing.
"We're going to have as a priority not to take money from the classroom," he said.
Riley said he can't go along with those who "say we're not going to help anyone but state employees and educators. I contend we can help them and the people who are working every day to allow us to have the type of surpluses we have."
The elderly will also be an issue in the session.
AARP and other groups are pushing for changes in the state Medicaid program that would allow the disabled to use Medicaid funding for home-based or community-based care rather than only nursing home care.
Riley said he wishes he could support it, but it's too expensive.
"Unless there are some major modifications to it, it would give unlimited ability to expand Medicaid and this state absolutely cannot afford it," he said.
No matter how much legislation gets passed, killed or talked about during the regular session, state law will require the session to end by June 18.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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