Legislators are loading up the pork train for elections

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 12, 2006

At the end of each Legislative Session I am reminded of an old saying that “nobody’s life, liberty, or property is safe as long as the Alabama Legislature is in session.” This criticism of Legislators, in general, is not unique to Alabama.

Throughout the country polls will indicate consistently that the Legislative body, as a whole, is the most distrusted and unpopular segment of state government. However, ironically the same poll will indicate that their individual Legislator is very popular with them.

In many cases in rural areas the local Representative will rival the local Sheriff in voter approval opinion surveys. It is apparent that they think the Legislature is a bunch of crooks and kooks, but they strongly think that their Legislator is not one of the crowd or at least is different.

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Much in the same way if they see Senator X get special money for his district, they decry the appropriation as pork and accuse that Senator of shamelessly feeding at the public trough.

However, if their Senator gets them a special project or road he is a master at bringing home the bacon and is praised profusely in town meetings and the local press as a champion for their district and area.

The Legislature has taken back much of their power usurped during the Wallace era. The Legislature was granted inherent influence in state government by the 1901 Constitution, but had relinquished it over the years. One of the reasons was that from 1901 to 1976 the Legislature only met in Regular Session every other year. Therefore, if they only came to Montgomery every two years they were really out of the loop with the workings of state government.

The change to an annual Legislative Session was approved by a Constitutional Amendment in 1975 and the Legislature has become a more integral part of state government.

In fact, over the past 30 years since the switch to annual sessions the Legislature has become the most powerful wheel of state politics.

Republ-ican gubernatorial candidate Roy Moore has espoused returning to biannual sessions. This would be a regressive step.

There are today only six states that meet every other year. Moore’s argument is that it would return the Legislature to a more “regular citizen” part time process.

However, in today’s changing fast paced economy it is impossible to budget the state finances every two years. The tax figures fluctuate so dramatically that they seldom stay the same during one current fiscal year.

For example, at the beginning of the year the State was running a deficit in both the General Fund and the Education Fund but six months later the economy had turned around and the state had record revenues coming in and a surplus was available.

Advocates of biannual sessions argue that special interests have too much power. This power would still exist every other year, but you would also give inordinate power to the Governor.

It is doubtful that much serious thought would be given to Moore’s proposal even if he were to be elected Governor. To the contrary I perceive that just the opposite will occur in the future with Alabama joining other larger states, like New York and California, and having a full time Legislative body.

The Budgets coming out of this year’s session are pork laden. The unique situation of having budget surpluses in both Education and General Funds in an election year was just too much to resist for Legislators running for reelection.

The flush figures have prompted an unbridled feeding frenzy. They have loaded up the pork train.

Look for a lot of smiling Legislative faces handing out checks prior to the November election. There will be more treats for certain special projects than most kids will have in their Halloween goody bags this fall.

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.