Logjam in Senate: Fairness or personalities?
By M.J. Ellington
MONTGOMERY — After 22 days in the 2007 regular legislative session, the rule of thumb is that the House passes bills and the Senate fusses.
The difference usually matters to the average voter only if services back home suffer when legislation affecting them does not pass in the logjam.
Area lawmakers say that possibility is real for the 2007 session.
The problem was so apparent last week that local House members began listing the impact of the logjam on average Alabamians, especially those in Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence counties. Area senators shared their views as well.
One observer noted that ego and personal feelings play a part in the Senate war that began with a power struggle between Democrats and Republicans. The official reason senators give is disagreement about operating rules in the upper chamber.
Sen. Tom Butler, D-Madison, helped lead a group of five maverick Senate Democrats who sided with Republicans wanting more say in Senate decisions and a longer time to debate budget bills before voting. Butler said voters may be starting to pay attention to the Senate feud, but he thinks Democrats on the other side are feeling the heat more than his group.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said the debate is still about openness and fairness for both parties and he wants the deadlock to end.
Speaker of the House Seth Hammett said he believes the Senate issue may be more about personalities than disagreement about rules.
“The difference is that in the Senate things have reached a point where people simply don’t like each other,” Hammett said. That bodes badly for the people’s business, he said.
Hammett had a suggestion for reporters at his end-of-week briefing. “Tell people to call their senator,” he said.
If the upper chamber cannot resolve its differences, then the session could end with no budgets and legislators could have to return to Montgomery for a special session at a cost of at least $400,000. Lawmakers said if the budgets do not pass, that is when voters will begin to feel the pinch locally.
Rep. Bill Dukes, D-Decatur, has been in the House for 12 years and in politics for 40 years. He said the situation in the Senate sends a bad message to other parts of the world about the state’s lawmaking body.
If members of the Senate cannot resolve their differences, Dukes said, there are bills affecting local services that will not pass. Dukes’ list includes the capital construction bond bill for education that affects what local schools can do to improve facilities, budgets for public transportation that enable North-central Alabama Regional Council of Governments to transport senior citizens, employee pay increases and operating money for the state work-release center in Decatur.
A bill broadening port authority territory to help set up funding for a new industrial park along I-65 near Hartselle is also at risk, Dukes said. Another defining the use of the 3 percent increase in TVA in-lieu-of-taxes funds in Morgan County is also in jeopardy. That bill, which would fund a staffed local legislative delegation office and provide more funds from that source for city and county governments, must pass the House and Senate.
When local bills do not pass the Legislature, Dukes said, local governments must pay again in a future year for required legal advertising and wait to implement programs that the legislation would provide if passed.
“It is a waste,” he said of the expense.
To Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, priority bills include his immigration legislation that he considers “of vital importance to the people of Alabama,” and returning property tax appraisals to every four years instead of yearly cycles.
“What is at risk? The budgets are at risk,” said Rep. Ronald Grantland, D-Hartselle.
The budgets include money for employee salaries and operating expenses, for local economic development projects and education programs.
Concerns of Rep. Jody Letson, D-Hillsboro, mirror those of Grantland. Letson is especially concerned about school funding. He said when local legislation fails in Montgomery, local governments often have to wait until another year for projects they need because the constitution requires legislative approval.
Rep. Jeremy Oden, R-Eva, said at-risk local bills include those giving voters the chance to vote on sales tax for county schools and economic development projects.
If the education budget does not pass, then schools cannot plan for next year, including costs for teachers and other personnel, said Rep. Mack McCutcheon, R-Capshaw. If the corrections budget does not pass, McCutcheon said, there are important concerns about salary increases for prison guards that could affect Limestone Correctional Facility.
“The taxpayers gave us a 62 percent raise,” said McCutcheon. “I hate to think that now we may have to come back and waste money on a special session to pass the budgets.”
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