From the State House
The 2009 Regular Legislative Session begins this week under the most ominous economic cloud ever seen in our lifetimes.
As legislators gather for their annual conclave, the budget is their priority. They are facing an Armageddon scenario. Many Goat Hill observers, who have been around the Legislature for a while, say it is the worst situation they have ever seen.
The fiscal year was only two months into its term when Gov. Bob Riley was forced to declare proration in mid-December. The amount of proration is staggering. Education is facing a 12.5 percent cut in its current budget, despite the fact that voters graciously voted to allow legislators to take a bigger slice of the rainy day savings fund for this year, which lessened the impact by 9 percent.
We in Alabama are behind the eight ball more than other states because we rely more heavily on volatile taxes like sales and income, whereas other states depend on the more constant and stable property tax for their primary source of education funding.
The problem is further exacerbated by the possibility that the current national economic recession may not have bottomed out and will be more prolonged than other economic downturns. Therefore, the speculation is that the Legislature will have to reduce the Education Budget for 2010 even more because there will not be any rainy day money left.
Proration of the education budget has occurred seven times since 1980. It was last declared in 2003. Since the 1938 Great Depression Era, proration has ranged from 2.76 percent to 14.4 percent. This 12.5 percent declaration is the worst in 50 years.
This dire financial dilemma will be tackled by a State Senate that has been in constant turmoil and disarray for the past two years. This Senate stalemate has stymied the ability to do anything, including the crafting of a responsible budget. They basically have done nothing for 25 of the 30 days of each Session, and then hastily passed the budgets in either the last five days or during a Special Session.
There is no sign that the dissidence has subsided. Instead there appears to be even more intense quarreling on the horizon. The conflict between the Democrats and Republicans is bad enough, but it may be compounded by infighting within the Democratic coalition.
When the Democratic majority organized in 2007, there was an agreement that white Democrat Hinton Mitchem would be President Pro Tem for two years and black Democrat Rodger Smitherman would be Pro Tem from 2009-2010.
The time has arrived and it is Smitherman's turn with the gavel. This agreement was public and well known. The problem now is the implementation of this agreement. Even though Sen. Mitchem agreed publicly to the deal, the catch is that Mitchem first has to resign before the Smitherman ascension can take place.
Mitchem and Sen. Lowell Barron have thrust the responsibility of getting the 18 Democratic Senators necessary to make the change on Smitherman's back. Smitherman, who is considered one of the most liberal members of the Senate, is not the most popular member of the body and does not get along that well with his fellow black Senators. This skirmish will be the first obstacle heaped upon the hot coals of turmoil in the Senate.
Further complications lie in the path of the Democratic efforts to wield control because they have lost three of their members since last year's Session. Veteran Democratic Senator Pat Lindsey died unexpectedly from a heart attack while on a hunting trip last month. He was a stalwart member of the tenuous Democratic majority.
A second senator, Parker Griffith of Huntsville, has gone to Congress and the third, E.B. McClain of Birmingham, has gone to jail.
Under Alabama law, Senators must be elected. Thus, special elections have to be called by the Governor to fill these three seats. Gov. Riley adroitly set the special election for Griffith's seat so that the seat will not be filled until after the Session ends in May.
The Lindsey and McClain seats will also be impossible to fill during this Session. Therefore, the Senate will be playing with only 32 instead of its usual 35.
Since all three vacancies were members of the Democratic majority, this makes their coalition very fragile and vulnerable. It presents a treacherous terrain and slippery slope. They may not want to open up the Pro Tem can of worms.
It will be interesting to watch and see who if anybody is in charge of the Senate. It would almost be comical if we were not in such a serious financial situation. Hopefully, some resolve and statesmanship will emerge. The Goat Hill Show has just begun.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama's leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the State Legislature. He may be contacted at www.steveflowers.us.