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SUNDAY, AUGUST 19, 2007
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CAPITOL LETTER
State politicians taking siesta
Riley unlikely to call special session before November

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

MONTGOMERY — Talk in Montgomery last week was more about the relentless heat than politics, but there are hints that as the weather cools, the politics will heat up.

If Gov. Bob Riley calls lawmakers to Montgomery for a special session, it will not be before the end of October. Rumors of the reasons for a special session are as varied as the opinions of the people passing them along, but often include ethics reform and official repeal of yearly property tax evaluation.

Opponents of a special session, especially one on property tax evaluation, say the governor could order a stop to yearly re-evaluations without a change in the law.

Running?

Retirement Systems of Alabama CEO David Bronner took a jab at state Finance Director Jim Main at a meeting of the State Employees’ Insurance Board on Wednesday.

Main, who along with Bronner serves on the board, objected to a request by the Senate to join one of the board’s government employee insurance plans at state expense.

Main went into great detail about his objections to the state subsidizing insurance costs for the Senate, especially without including House members.

Bronner supports providing legislators with low-cost coverage to replace the option they have now that requires them to pay the full cost.

But he voted to turn down the Senate-only request that excluded House members.

He said perhaps Main’s “whole harangue for an hour” on the Senate insurance issue had something to do with a plan to run for a seat on the Alabama Supreme Court. Main smiled, but said nothing in response.

Pitching for Guard

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he hopes that Decatur’s shrinking National Guard operations will return to brigade status.

Orr said a military expert from U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions’ staff will be in Decatur this week. He plans to meet with him to discuss the area’s long-term needs. A new National Guard armory site may be part of the discussion, Orr said.

He believes with National Guard enlistment numbers up in Alabama again this year after several slow years, the city’s chances to be home base for a brigade again are also better.

U.S. Army and National Guard officials in Washington ordered de-activation of the 142nd Signal Brigade based in Decatur as part of a streamlining and modernization plan. The process begins Oct. 1.

Orr said North Alabama needs the presence of a brigade for rapid response to regional needs. The 142nd is the only guard brigade north of Birmingham.

Partisanship or ethics

Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, said voters should remember that people pushing to block two-year college employees from serving in the Legislature have a political agenda.

Little said new two-year college Chancellor Bradley Byrne’s proposed policies to ban system employees from serving in the Legislature by 2010 will affect Democrats more than Republicans.

He believes the focus is an attempt by Republicans to take over the Legislature.

Little, now Senate majority leader, said people should not forget that Byrne, a Republican state senator from Fairhope until his selection as chancellor in May, is highly qualified “but he was also highly partisan.”

“I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate reasons for change,” Little said of the two-year system issues. “Don’t lose sight of the partisan nature of it.”

Unfunded mandates

RSA’s Bronner keeps hammering the point the state’s retiree benefits are not cheap and should serve as a reminder that the state needs to put funds aside to pay the long-term costs.

Bronner made the point again Wednesday to the State Employees’ Insurance Board after the group voted to waive almost $28.9 million in employer contributions for state agencies covered by the General Fund.

Main requested the insurance premium credit to help the agencies meet their budgets and avoid program cutbacks.

The amount will cover about one month in state employer health insurance premium contributions for its 32,000-plus member work force.

But Bronner reminded the insurance board that the state has an unfunded mandate to provide funding for future benefits to state employee and education retirees.

“You did nothing to solve a $20 billion problem,” Bronner told the board.

Federal accounting requirements obligate states to report retiree benefit costs as liabilities unless states show concrete plans to pay for them long term.

He called on Riley to appoint a committee to address the need before the next session of the Legislature. Main promised to pass the request on to the governor.

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