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Gov. Bob Riley addresses the Daleville Chamber of Commerce banquet Monday.
AP Photo by Jay Hare
Gov. Bob Riley addresses the Daleville Chamber of Commerce banquet Monday.

Riley says deal means budgets, bonds can pass

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

DALEVILLE — Gov. Bob Riley said Monday he has reached an agreement with House and Senate budget committee chairmen that will allow the state budgets and a more than $1 billion bond issue for school construction to pass, despite bitter partisan fighting that has blocked most legislation.

But the chairman of the Senate education budget committee, Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said the deal has still not been approved by all 18 members of the Democratic majority in the Senate and could collapse like previous "agreements" earlier in the session.

"We did reach something of an agreement subject to our folks going along. We haven't worked out all the details," Sanders said. "It's not a done agreement."

Riley was also cautious and said the agreement could fall apart.

In a speech Monday to about 350 South Alabama business and government leaders at the Daleville Chamber of Commerce Awards Banquet, Riley made it clear he is not happy with some lawmakers, who have buried in committees his tax-cut proposals, including one to give small businesses an income tax break if they offer health insurance to their employees. Income tax revenue is spent for education in Alabama.

"They keep saying they can't do it because it will hurt education. That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard in my life," Riley said, adding that the state education budget has risen from about $4 billion to $6.7 billion in the more than four years he has been governor.

After his speech, Riley said he worked all weekend talking to lawmakers to reach an agreement.

"There is too much at stake for us to do anything other than get the budgets and the bond issue passed," he said.

The education and government operating budgets have passed the House, but a session-long dispute over rules between the Democratic majority and 17 minority senators has blocked the spending plans in the upper chamber. The bond issue stalled on the House floor last week in a dispute between Democrats and representatives loyal to Riley over who would control spending of an incentives fund in the bond issue that could reach as high as $100 million.

The bond issue bill provides that there would be $42 million in a fund for emergencies and special needs, plus interest generated by the bonds. That fund would be controlled by a committee currently controlled by the governor — it is made up of Riley, State Finance Director Jim Main, who was appointed by Riley, and State School Superintendent Joe Morton, who was elected by the state school board. The bill expands the committee to include Sanders, House education budget chairman Rep. Richard Lindsey, D-Centre, and Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., all Democrats.

Both sides have called that money a "slush fund" and accused each other of trying to control how it is spent.

Neither Sanders nor the governor would say Monday if the agreement includes a compromise on who will decide how money in the bond issue is spent. "We're still in negotiations," Sanders said.

One member of the Senate minority, Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, confirmed a tentative agreement has been approved by the 17 minority senators. He wouldn't outline the details until he knows whether the entire 18-member Democratic majority will approve it, but he said it involves passing both budgets and the education bond issue.

"I'm optimistic we are going to be able to get back on track," he said.

Riley had a supportive audience Monday in Daleville, located just outside the gate to the Fort Rucker Army base.

He received applause when he criticized legislators for not going along with his tax-cut proposals.

"I think his policies have absolutely helped the state," said Frank Sessions, who owns a dry cleaning business in nearby Enterprise. He said he wishes legislators would do more to help the governor implement his plans. "I think he's proven himself and they ought to go along with him."

Riley received his loudest applause when he criticized the U.S. Congress' efforts to put language in recent legislation that set a timetable for President Bush to remove troops from Iraq.

"Whether you support the war or don't support the war, cutting off money to our troops goes way too far," Riley said. "These are men and women who wake up every morning and don't know if they are going to make it through the day."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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