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State budgets in line to pass after Senate stalling

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — State senators expressed optimism Wednesday they will pass the state budgets and public employees' pay raises before the legislative session ends, but other major bills are in doubt with only four meeting days remaining.

On Wednesday, the two Senate budget committees approved — without opposition — the House-passed General Fund and education budgets for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

Committee Chairmen Rodger Bedford, D-Russellville, and Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said they will be talking with senators during the next few days and will offer substitute budgets for the Senate to consider Tuesday.

"I feel optimistic we will get the General Fund budget and the Education Trust Fund budget," Bedford said.

Sanders and Bedford also expressed optimism the Senate will approve House-passed pay raises for public employees — 7 percent for education employees and 3.5 percent for state workers, starting Oct. 1. Their committees approved those bills unanimously Wednesday.

Sen. Del Marsh, a leader of the Senate's minority of 12 Republicans and five dissident Democrats, said he expects the 18-member Democratic majority to push the two budgets through the Legislature by the next-to-last meeting day of the session. That move will prevent Republican Gov. Bob Riley from being able to kill them with a veto, Marsh, R-Anniston, said.

Beyond the budgets and pay raises, Senate leaders are not sure what might pass.

No consensus

Bedford said there has been no consensus reached in the Senate on a House-passed school construction bond issue totaling more than $1 billion.

Bedford's committee had earlier approved legislation to end annual property tax reappraisals and go back to annual reappraisals. Under the Senate's rules, one person can block that bill in the closing days of the session, and Bedford said that appears likely to happen if the bill comes up for consideration.

Marsh said the Senate minority has been unsuccessful in efforts to push legislation banning the transfer of money between political action committees, and the bill's fate is up to the Democratic majority.

"They control the votes," he said.

Gov. Riley said Wednesday that he understands why the minority senators are fighting the rules.

"The problem is you have a Senate structure where the one-vote majority makes all the decisions. That is not a democracy, it becomes a dictatorship," Riley said. "The one-vote majority can dictate anything that goes on. There has to be some protection for the minority."

The Senate has passed little this session other than economic incentives for new industries and money to rebuild tornado-ravaged schools in Enterprise. For much of the session, the Senate minority has been using stalling tactics to protest Senate operating rules they consider unfair, including reducing the number of senators needed to cut off a filibuster on the state budgets from 21 to 18. That's the exact number of Democratic senators in the Senate's ruling majority.

Republican senators complained Wednesday that they fear the Democratic majority will use the new rules to cut off debate after 30 minutes Tuesday, which is the shortest time allowed by the Senate's rules.

Bedford told Republicans, "There will be no rush to cut off debate" on the General Fund budget. Sanders said the Democratic majority will guarantee the minority three hours to debate the education budget before taking a vote to cut off discussion.

Republicans said three hours is too little time to thoroughly review the two largest budgets in state history: a $6.7 billion education budget and $1.8 billion General Fund budget for non-education programs.

"It's what we've been talking about since the beginning of the session," Sen. Steve French, R-Birmingham, said.

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

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