Budgets create chain reaction

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 6, 2006

“What is the Governor going to do about the education budget?” was a constant question over the last several weeks.

My constant answer was “I don’t know.”

“When will you know?” they asked.

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“Probably when the executive message arrives in the Legislature”, was my repeated response.

“Does Chairman Lindsey know anything?” they asked.

“He only knows the little I know,” I would say.

And the questions and responses continued.

The education budget passed the Legislature on March 9.

The Alabama Constitution gives governors seven days, excluding Saturdays and Sundays, to sign, veto or propose an amendment to bills.

This time, the seven days expired while we were in recess for spring break, so the Governor had until, March 29, the second legislative day after we returned.

As a result, we had 20 days of “What is the Governor going to do?”

I also wanted to know what the Governor was going to do with the education budget.

I called the Governor’s Finance Director, Jim Main, on two occasions and he was close-mouthed, saying he did not really know.

I believed Jim because by my “guestimation,” the Governor was still making up his mind.

When the Governor called me about the income tax bill, which was dear to his heart (and my heart), I said, “Governor, what are you going to do about the education budget?”

“Depends on what happens to the income tax threshold bill,” he responded.

“We will pass it and send it to you,” I said.

“Good!” he replied.

I still did not know what he was going to do about the education budget.

Several times I talked with Represen-tative Richard Lindsey, Chair of the House Committee handling the education budget.

He did not know anything.

I also talked with Dr. Paul Hubert several times to see if he had heard anything.

Even his deeply rooted grapevine yielded little fruit.

I called others with the same results.

While the question was often asked, speculation about the answer was less rampant than in years past.

I suspect the reason was the general perception that any major change would likely be overridden by each house of the Legislature (53 votes in the House and 18 in the Senate).

This education budget was riding a powerful consensus, having passed the House by a vote of 101-0 and the Senate by a vote of 27-6.

Still, we knew this was not a budget the Governor wanted.

He had proposed a $500 million dollar capital improvement program.

The Legislature, however, made short-shift of this proposal.

He would certainly want to change the budget but he had to reckon with the political reality of such powerful consensus.

For me, the real question was whether the Governor would make it hard or easy for us.

It was late Wednesday afternoon (March 29) when we heard something definite.

It was after a press conference wherein the Governor said that he had returned the education budget to the Legislature with an executive amendment.

The change carved out $60 million to pay for the income tax threshold bill winding its way through the legislative maze.

The question then became, “What did he cut in the budget to get $60 million?”

We soon had details: $8 million from Community Service Grants; $16 million from the Proration Prevention Account; and $36 million from repayments to the Rainy Day Fund.

I immediately understood that he had made it easy for us: legislators wanted the Rainy Day Fund paid off because it was the fiscally responsible thing to do; and legislators did not want Community Service Grants cut one single dime.

The combination made it very easy.

The executive amendment went to the House first because the budget bill started in the House.

Soon after the executive amendment reached the House, it was easily overridden by a vote of 63 to 38.

Every Democrat and several Republicans voted to override.

When the executive amendment arrived in the Senate, a filibuster was in full bloom.

I asked the leader of the effort, Senator Rodger Smitherman, if he would allow the education budget (and teacher pay raise bill) to slip through the broad net cast by the filibuster.

He agreed and the executive amendment was quickly overridden by a vote of 26-9.

Every Democrat and one Republican, voted to override.

We finally had the answer to the question, “What is the Governor going to do about the education budget?”

More importantly, we had the answer to the question, “What will we do about what the Governor does?”