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CAPITOL LETTER
Calm start, speedy end to first week

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — The first week of the Legislature’s 2007 regular session began with an upbeat State of the State address by Gov. Bob Riley and ended with a controversial expense allowance increase for lawmakers, who left Montgomery in droves just after their vote Thursday.

Republican or Democrat?

Some observers left the State of the State address Tuesday night remarking about the governor’s call for Democrats and Republicans to work together.

“Democrat or Republican, it was hard to tell,” remarked one observer.

People who count such things noted that the audience in the Old House Chamber interrupted Riley’s speech with applause 39 times. Many Democratic lawmakers were not there, however.

Oops for Medicaid

Alabama Medicaid Commissioner Carol Herrmann-Steckel said the strong words she got from Rep. John Knight about her agency’s contract with an outside lobbyist was a little bit like getting a scolding from your father.

Knight, D-Montgomery, told Herrmann-Steckel at a meeting of the Joint Legislative Contract Review Committee that her agency is the last one in the state that should be paying a lobbyist because lawmakers know how great the need is to help the state’s poorest citizens.

“We messed up,” the commissioner said.

Herrmann-Steckel and Assistant Medicaid Commissioner Mary Finch will spend more time at the State House as a result, but both know the territory well from past years.

Changes for agencies

One wrinkle in the Medicaid-lobbyist controversy involves a gubernatorial executive order dating to former Gov. Fob James’ second administration. The order, still in effect, forbids state agencies from hiring lobbyists.

Riley’s legal adviser, Ken Wallis, told legislators at the Contract Review Committee that department heads had not been aware that the James order existed. He said his administration will make sure in the future that the committee sees outside contracts, whether they go through a competitive bid process or not. The committee is supposed to review all outside contracts.

ThyssenKrupp where?

At least two days last week new white vans emblazoned with a recently famous German steel company name were parked near a loading dock behind the State House.

A nosy reporter, outside for a smoke, finally saw someone at one of the trucks and asked why they were there. Elevators, was the answer. While Alabama and Louisiana are in a tight race to land a new ThyssenKrupp steel plant, the vans were from the branch of the company that services elevators, and the employees drove all the way from Birmingham, not Germany.

Raise or no raise?

The governor’s budget does not include a raise for state employees, and Finance Director Jim Main said the reason is because his office does not see a long-term way to fund one.

House Speaker Seth Hammett said lawmakers hope to find a way, but he does not know how much of a raise could be funded.

Alabama State Employees Executive Director Mack McArthur, standing outside a House committee meeting room this week, said if education employees get a raise, he’ll push one in a similar amount for state workers.

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