Politics still fun in Alabama

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 1, 2006

There is a popular longstanding political saying that is repeated often in Montgomery during each Legislative session that “nobody’s life, liberty, or property is safe when the Alabama Legislature is in session.” During my 16 years in the Legislature I somewhat took offense by the adage, although in my heart I knew it reflected some validity.

However, a more accurate assessment is that the Legislature will spend whatever money is thought to be available and furthermore you can bet that in an election year it will all be spent and then some. In addition you can bank on the fact that in an election year teachers and state employees will get a pay raise, whether or not the money is available. Therefore, as the current election year session is reaching its midway point one outcome is certain: teachers and state employees will receive a nice pay raise. The state coffers are brimming with a surplus so public employees of the state will get their raise and Legislators hope that they will in turn vote for them at the polls in June and November.

Hopefully Legislators will not be reckless with this year’s surplus because it could very well be one time money. In fact, when last year’s budget was being crafted it was thought that it would be in jeopardy of being prorated. It is only due to a seismic upturn in the economy that we are in good shape financially. A downturn in the economy could cause a disastrous train wreck in the state budget if irresponsible budgeting occurs in this election year feeding frenzy. Thankfully, the two most powerful leaders in the Legislature, Senate President Lowell Barron and House Speaker Seth Hammett, are strong advocates of storing money into a rainy day fund to take care of a possible downturn in the economy. These two men’s restraint and conservative fiscal outlook is a godsend for state government.

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In contrast, Gov. Bob Riley, who is in a tough contest to regain his party’s nomination and then faces a dogfight for reelection in November, has succumbed to election year pandering and lack of fiscal restraint in his proposals. In his heart he knows his proposals and budget will be ignored by the Democratically controlled Legislature the same way he has been cast aside for the first three years of his term. He is basically irrelevant in the budget process. Thank goodness he is, because his pie in the sky fiscal endorsements of pay raises, while at the same time asking to give the surplus back, and on top of that offering a tax cut just does not add up to a balanced state budget which constitutionally has to be balanced.

Riley’s State of the State address in early January was political posturing at heights unheard of even in Alabama politics. He even had his television commercial team filming it for campaign ads. The speech was designed to bring back Republican voters who may have deserted him after his 2003 tax debacle. His political pitch is almost comical asking for pay raises, surplus returns, and tax cuts in contrast to his asking for a $1.2 billion tax hike only two years ago.

In the meantime Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner Lucy Baxley has recently portrayed some political posturing of her own. Last week while using the only vestige of power left in the Lt. Governor’s office, the presiding over the Senate and wielding the gavel, she abruptly adjourned the Senate wasting a full legislative day. She declared a quorum was not present three minutes after the Senate convened. She cited that there were only 16 Senators on the floor and that 18 were needed for a quorum. There were at least six Senators just outside the Chamber heading onto the floor. Lucy was hoping that her action would give her positive publicity for being authoritative and tough, the same way it did when she took the same action two years ago. Needless to say, she angered Senators on both sides of the aisle. The harshest criticism of her blatant political move came from Democratic Senators.

Who says politics is not still fun in Alabama?

See you next week.

-Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 66 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the State Legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.