Time runs short as lawmakers look for budget solution

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Lawmakers are running short on time and options as they seek a solution to the projected General Fund shortfall for next year.

There are eight meeting days left in the 2015 legislative session. Lawmakers agree they need to work together. They haven’t agreed on a solution.

“We really just need to sit down and come up with ideas. Right now, it’s kind of been everybody coming up with their own ideas,” House Speaker Mike Hubbard said. “We’ve got to work together over the next few days.”

The Alabama House of Representatives will vote Tuesday on a stripped down $1.6 billion budget that cuts about $200 million from state agencies. Gov. Robert Bentley has called the spending plan “irresponsible” and one that would “hurt people.”

Legislators have so far rejected Bentley’s call for $541 million in taxes. House Republicans at one point threw their support to a much smaller $150 million revenue plan that was anchored by a 25-cent per-pack tax increase on cigarettes. House support crumbled after Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh predicted senators would not go along with the plan, Republicans said.

“We’ll see what the body thinks when they actually see the budget. We’ll have to make some decisions,” Marsh said.

Marsh said so far lawmakers aren’t hearing calls from people urging revenue over cuts. That could change as the budget gets closer to being finalized, he said. “But then again we might not hear anything,” Marsh said.

Behind-the-scenes talks are continuing on the budget. Marsh and Hubbard have scheduled a joint press conference for Monday to discuss the budget.

A Special Session on the budget this summer is looking likely, key legislators said. The 2015 Legislative Session by law must conclude by June 15. Bentley has vowed to veto any budget with deep cuts to agencies and threatened to call lawmakers back into Special Session multiple times if needed.

Here’s a look at the status of some other issues before Alabama lawmakers in the final days of the legislative session.

Payday loans

A House committee has approved new restrictions on payday loans that short-term lenders can offer to consumers in need of quick cash, but the bill has yet to get a floor vote.

A bill by Trussville Republican Rep. Danny Garrett would give borrowers more time to repay a loan, taking the window from 14 days to six months. He said that would reduce the effective annual interest rate from more than 456 percent to 36 percent. Garrett said the loans “trap borrowers in a debt cycle” as people renew the loan, or take out new ones when they can’t pay off the first.

Payday store owners oppose the bill, arguing that it will drive most stores out of business.

Gambling

A lottery-and-casino bill has cleared a Senate committee, but faces long odds. The bill would authorize, if lawmakers and voters agree, a state lottery and casinos at four state dog tracks.

Hubbard said he doesn’t think there is support in either legislative chamber for the gambling bill. However, Marsh, the bill’s sponsor, said he thinks many legislators and voters would prefer legalized gambling to taxes and budget cuts.

Because a lottery and casinos would have to be approved by voters, gambling revenue would not be available when the fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Gay marriage

Alabama lawmakers introduced a number of bills in anticipation that the U.S. Supreme Court later this year could legalize gay marriage nationwide.

A House-passed bill would give legal protections to judges and ministers who refuse, for religious reasons, to marry certain couples. However, an amendment on the bill in Senate committee adds that the refusals can’t violate the U.S. Constitution.

A House committee has approved a bill that would allow private adoption agencies to turn away gay couples on religious grounds. The bill is largely seen as an effort to protect church-affiliated children’s homes from losing their state licenses and state contracts. A Senate committee has approved another bill to do away with state-issued marriage licenses.

Neither bill has gotten a floor vote.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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