This is the time of year, when we media types get excited about a new legislative session which, if it’s like every other legislative session, won’t make any news until the day before it ends this June. And that’s only if it does all the things it’s required to do by the Alabama Constitution. Some years, lawmakers work so hard to do nothing well that the governor has had to call them back for a special session — a sort of legislative overtime — and do nothing some more, until they all get so tired that that finally do something, usually passing a budget.
But none of that doesn’t keeps us from hoping for quick action, nor does it prevent lawmakers from using the press and a little posturing to make headlines for themselves. And we in the media oblige them, because, after all, we’re as eager to kill the time as they are.
It seems all but certain some changes will be made to Alabama’s toughest-in-the-nation immigration law. The questions remain what changes will those be and will some of the law’s staunchest supporters fight any tweaks.
Most of the changes would losen which forms of proof of citizenship businesses and government could accept, including drivers licenses and military ID. So far Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, has proposed the most extensive revisions of Alabama’s immigration law, incorporating more of the changes suggested by Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange.
Meanwhile, some Democrats have proposed repealing the immigration law entirely. A bill proposed by Senator Billy Beasley, D-Clayton, would do just that. The bill has three co-sponsors, including Sen. Rodger Smitherman from Birmingham and Sen. Pricilla Dunn of Bessemer. Rep. Patricia Todd has proposed a similar bill in the Alabama House.
Curiously, Smitherman seems to be against an immigration bill now, after he was for it. Last year, Smitherman was among a handful of Democrats who voted for HB56.
JeffCo Hopes Dashed Already?
Jefferson County Commissioners want lawmakers make the county solvent again with a new and consitutional occupational tax, but the chances of that happening are already looking slim. Like last year, lawmakers are lining up on either side of the gulch that divides them.
On one side, Democrats are ready to refuse any legislation that would unearmark existing taxes, especially taxes that support Cooper Green Mercy Hospital. On Monday, Rep. John Rogers and Rep. Mary Moore said they would kill any bill in the House that proposed to unearmark those funds.
On the other side of the divide, Republicans, including the governor, seemed poised to kill any bill that would raise new taxes. Saying he is against any tax increase, Rep. Paul Demarco has decided instead to treat the county’s symptoms rather than its disease. A bill he is proposing would shift the burden of managing car tags and titles from the county to the cities.
Meanwhile, Todd has decided again to champion another of the region’s lost causes. She is proposing to hike the price of car tags to pay for mass transit in Birmingham. Nearly a decade ago, similar legislation nearly passed through Montgomery, but was killed none the less. There seems to be little reason to believe this year will be any different.
Balancing the Alabama’s Books
Throughout the recession, Alabama has depended on federal stimulus dollars and state reserves balance the two state budgets —the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund. But this year, the legislature has make both those budgets work without the filler from the feds or from savings. The challenge is daunting if it’s even possible.
Of the two budgets, the Education Trust Fund is the healthier. Revenue earmarked for the education budget is up, but maybe not enough to stave off another year of proration. What’s more, last year the legislature passed a “rolling reserve” law, requiring the Education Trust Fund to maintain a reserve based on tax collections from prior years. The Alabama Education Association is asking lawmakers to postpone the law’s enactment one year. Because the law is going into effect on the back end of a recession, the AEA says, the reserve would be inflated beyond what is necessary, especially after schools have struggled with years of proration.
The rolling reserve enactment will be one of challenges facing the new AEA chief, Henry Mabry, who replaces long-time political boss Paul Hubbert this year as the head of the teachers’ union. In addition to the reserve law, Republicans are ready to fight the AEA over charter schools. Charter schools are illegal in Alabama, but if the GOP majority — now in its second year — has its way, that prohibition will end soon. The party has made charter schools a top priority on its 2012 agenda.
While charter schools might be more efficient and less burdened by bureaucratic red tape, Republicans will have to argue how they will reduce education expenses. No one expects charter schools to open up over night, and at best, the impact on the state education budgets will take years, not months. That’s time the state might not have.
What’s more, Gov. Robert Bentley is not as eager as his party to put charter schools in motion. Some will say that’s because of the support he received form AEA during his 2010 campaign, but the governor frames the debate as a matter of pace and prudence. Instead, Bentley is proposing the state start a pilot program to test the effectiveness of charter schools before legalizing them across the board.
Bentley has backed down from an even less popular position — raiding the education budget to prop up the general fund. Late last year, when Education Trust Fund revenues were looking flush, Bentley proposed the state unify its budget and remove earmarks from education. Even Republican lawmakers were afraid to go so far. Recently, Bentley told the Birmingham News he would leave the Education Trust Fund alone, at least for this year.
Bentley also says he will veto any tax increases. In Alabama, that doesn’t mean much, since the Legislature can override a veto with a simple majority, but Republican leaders seem to be in agreement with the governor on this no new taxes pledge.
The state has projected that general fund revenues this year could drop by as much as 25 percent. Without stimulus dollars or reserves, the state will have to cut as much as $400 million in its spending.
Ultimately, the state is unwilling to unearmark funds and it’s unwilling to raise taxes. The state now looks a lot like Jefferson County, and neither can afford to waste time.
The Messenger Shoots Back is a column about political culture.