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Capitol Letter
Governor right not to call special session, most observers say

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

MONTGOMERY — Most observers agree that Gov. Bob Riley was right not to call a special session for this fall.

Riley said he abandoned the special session because Democrats in the Legislature couldn’t agree on the issues.

Democratic leaders, meanwhile, said Riley never talked to them about a special session.

That may indicate an even larger lack of consensus.

“If he never reached the Democrats, it means he did not have consensus within his own supporters,” said Athens State University political science professor Jess Brown said. “There was no need to talk to the Democrats.”

Lawmakers probably did not want to return to Montgomery for a fall session. One issue was the proposed agenda, which allegedly included coastal property insurance relief.

Coupled with an ethics package, which included a bill banning the transfer of funds between political action committees, and another look at annual property tax reappraisals, the session’s potential for disagreement was huge, as was the potential for failure.

Brown termed the agenda problematic, even among Riley’s supporters in the Legislature.

A rule that late Gov. George C. Wallace stood by is still a guide today: “If you don’t have the votes, don’t call a special,” said Brown. “At the beginning of a fiscal year with no fiscal crisis, where was the urgency?” Brown asked.

“Remember what a special session is for. If it goes well, you look great. If it goes badly, you get criticized for wasting taxpayer money.”

Brown said that had Riley called the Legislature back for those issues “the Democrats would have been over there with the old populist attitude.”

That attitude is that it is bad to call lawmakers into special session “to give a bunch of wealthy people tax breaks on their beach houses while 700,000 poor people do not have health care.”

Bad message, especially if it failed, Brown said.

Sen. Tom Butler of Madison is a Democrat, but he often works closely with Riley’s supporters on legislative issues. Butler said he had more than one phone call from Riley staffers trying to judge whether to call the session.

“I did not see the need for it. There was a lot of disagreement about the coastal insurance thing. There was no real need to handle the other issues now,” Butler said.

If necessary, Riley can call a special session within a regular session to handle only those bills in his package once lawmakers get back to the capital in February, Butler said.

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