Can lawmakers pull rabbit from hat?
By M.J. Ellington
MONTGOMERY — This legislative session is either dead or a magic show where lawmaker magicians will pull a legislative rabbit out of the hat and pass the budgets.
Disagreements stalled the budgets in the Senate again last week and Gov. Bob Riley asked the Senate minority not to fold, even if the result means ending the session without budgets.
Some area lawmakers said afterward that the session is dead. Others were looking for ways to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
Sens. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur; Tom Butler, D-Madison, and Rep. Bill Dukes, D-Decatur, believe the budgets will pass.
“Dead? I don’t think so at all,” Orr said. “Tuesday is a crucial, crucial day, but I still believe we can do it.” Orr said this year’s Senate operating rules are responsible for the sessionlong slowdown and are a sticking point for the minority group, but they want the budgets passed.
“There are so many, many things” that the 18-member Senate majority and the 17-member Senate minority agree on, he said. Among them are the 7 percent raise for education employees, the 3.5 percent raise for state employees and most items in a capital construction bond issue for education.
Orr said he believes a lot depends on whether the majority leaders will agree to take up the budgets next week. “We want to get them out, look at them and discuss them,” he said.
Butler said he hopes the Senate will use common sense in deciding how to use the rest of the session. “Hopefully, between now and Tuesday, cooler heads on both sides will prevail,” Butler said.
The Senate minority used as leverage the usually non-controversial “sunset” bills that determine the fate of certain state boards and commissions to try and change the rules they consider unfair. Under state law, most senators must agree to bypass sunset bills to take up other legislation. Beforehand it takes 21 votes.
Once all sunset bills pass, it takes a simple majority of 18 senators to pass remaining bills.
The minority has enough votes to stop the sunset bills but not enough votes to bypass them. The Senate majority could not swing the votes to pass the sunset measures and bring up the budgets.
Butler believes senators should agree to disagree on the rules, put aside the remaining two sunset bills and pass the budgets.
“There are stubborn people on both sides,” Butler said. “We need to put our differences aside, pass the budgets and work on those issues over the summer and fall.”
Rep. Bill, Dukes, D-Decatur, is not willing to write off the session.
‘Just cost the taxpayers’
“In the end, they are going to have to pass the budgets,” Dukes said. “If the stalemate continues, it will just cost the taxpayers.”
Reps. Ronald Grantland, D-Hartselle, Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, and Henry White, D-Athens, think the session may be dead.
Hammon said the education and General Fund budgets that cleared the House are good, but a $1.1 billion capital improvement bond issue under debate has problems. He believes the bill’s changes in the structure of the board that would decide how to spend a $44 million discretionary fund is what led Riley to publicly side with the Senate minority in its fight over operating rules.
The governor, finance director and the state superintendent of education always decided how to spend education bond money in the past. The current bill would dilute the power of the governor by adding the House and Senate education budget chairs and the lieutenant governor to the board.
“That was another ‘in your face’ to the governor,” Hammon said.
He sees two scenarios that could play out in the Legislature.
In one, Speaker of the House Seth Hammett could “sine die” or officially end the session for the House next week, forcing the Senate to either pass the House version of the budgets or end without budgets.
In the other, the House and Senate would end the session at the same time, but without budgets and the governor would call a special session for September, pressuring lawmakers to reach compromise on budgets before the beginning of the new state budget year on Oct. 1.
‘Nail in the coffin’
Grantland is surprised that Riley would support a Senate slowdown. “It was a nail in the coffin,” he said of Riley’s Thursday announcement that he backed the Senate minority position.
“It looks like he would want to pass the budgets, and give schools and agencies time to plan for next year, take care of Medicaid,” Grantland said.
Still, Grantland said, in the nine years he’s been in the Legislature, things looked bad before. “All at once they would work things out,” he said. “I’m just frustrated.”
White said he is “real surprised and kind of shocked” that Riley would encourage the Senate minority. “What makes them think it will be any better later?” White asked.
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