Legislators remain guinea pigs for “budget isolation”

Piggy bank budget money

I’ll admit it: Not only did I fall for Kyle Whitmire’s click bait headline “The column in which I describe myself naked to get you to read about budget isolation resolutions” I actually read through the entire post. I kept plugging through all 25 mentions of budget isolation and budget isolation resolutions (BIR). Take that John Archibald. Your young apprentice should make you proud.

More than one article has been written in recent years about budget isolation so I won’t rehash what it is in detail. That’s not really the intriguing part anyway. What is intriguing, for those of us not around at the time, is how we ended up with the law and the great lengths that its opponents went through to kill it. Further, a look at the how it’s affecting operations these days.

A hopeful remedy to years of legislative standstills, the isolation budget process was designed by Gov. Fob James in 1981. Its intention was merely to focus lawmakers’ attention on the budget and ensure that one be adopted early in a legislative session leaving ample time for other important bills.

After years of political, legal and legislative wrangling however the issue was placed on the ballot. A September 1982 AP story notes that when James went to vote, the lever for the initiative was locked. Because of the ongoing legal fights and conflicting reports on the legality of the amendment, some counties wouldn’t even allow the measure to be voted upon.

Three long years after its inception, in 1984, budget isolation passed and though the public loved it, political insiders and elected officials weren’t fans. Days before the amendment was supposed to go into effect, an AP headline on Feb. 2, 1985 read:  “Alabama legislators guinea pigs for ‘budget isolation.’”

It was clear Fob’s landmark legislation wasn’t for everyone. Opinions were strong throughout the article with several people quoted clearly displeased. When asked about his opinion on budget isolation then-Secretary of the Senate (1963-2011) and former state Rep.  McDowell Lee called it “the worst piece of legislation passed in my lifetime. … It is the worst piece of legislation for the orderly process of the Legislature.”

There were other skeptics as well. Then-Sen. Charles Bishop said, “I don’t think it will make much difference in the flow of legislation, but it could affect what flows.” Meanwhile, then-Rep. Jimmy Clark thought budget isolation was going to “be a roadblock.”

The general consensus among the elected officials was that Alabama constituents didn’t really understand what they had agreed to in passing budget isolation.

“I think what the general public was saying when they passed budget isolation is they would like to see the budgets passed without a lot of arm-twisting, and they would like to see a lot less trashy bills passed,” Bishop said.

Sure enough, even in its very first year budget isolation was a failure . The education budget passed on May 1, the 25th legislative day, and the general fund budget passed on the 29th day, of the 30-day session. The goal of passing the general fund and education budgets early in session didn’t work, and then Gov. George Wallace found himself calling for a Special Session three times in 1985.

Thus began the myriad problems stemming from budget isolation.

Which brings us to where we are today. Here, 30 years after the very first session under budget isolation, the Alabama Legislature is still forced to make end-runs around an amendment that has never functioned as James intended. With only 12 session days remaining, after Thursday, it is once again looking as though it’s headed into Special Session later this year as the education budget has only passed the Senate and General Fund budget has yet to be debated.

“But the joke is on the voters since with no mandated date to pass the budgets, it’s business as usual in the Legislature, albeit business conducted a bit more awkwardly than in the past,” Tommy Stevenson, then-associated editor of The Tuscaloosa News, wrote in the paper on Feb. 24, 1985. The quote still rings true these many years later.

The question I pose is: Can and will the charade that is budget isolation continue indefinitely?