As special session resumes, still no agreement on budget

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The Alabama Legislature on Monday resumed a special session on a budget shortfall the same way it began three weeks ago: with absolutely no consensus on what to do.

Legislators convened after taking a three-week hiatus that failed to erase the divisions among Republicans who control the governor’s office and both chambers of the Alabama Legislature. The state is two months from the start of the new fiscal year and lawmakers have yet to pass a general budget or agree on a way to fill a projected $200 million shortfall.

“We’re like kudzu. All over the place and not worth a darn,” said Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road.

Lawmakers weighed politically unsavory choices of tax increases, yanking money out of the education budget, or doing nothing and cutting state services.

Gov. Robert Bentley said the only responsible solution to the state’s budget woes is to raise $300 million in new revenue. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said senators remained largely opposed to tax increases. Somewhere between the two is the House of Representatives, which is headed to a vote this week on a modest cigarette tax increase.

House Ways and Means General Fund Committee Chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, said he has introduced a $173 million revenue plan that banks on a 25-cent per pack tax increase on cigarettes, an adjustment to the business privilege tax – so larger businesses pay more and smaller ones pay less – and a net shift of $50 million from the separate state education budget to the cash-strapped general fund.

“We’ve been at this now for about the six months with the regular session, and (the Senate) can’t make a decision. We’ve got to make a decision based on what we feel that our constituents we represent in the House want us to do, and that’s to come forward with a plan,” Clouse said.

Clouse said that will keep funding at the same level for prisons, Medicaid and other crucial services but other agencies would get a 5.5 percent cut. Clouse said “time will tell” if they have the votes.

Marsh in a news conference suggested a scenario that largely depended on shifting up to $225 million from the education budget and deciding later how to replace the school dollars to get to a “comfort level.”

“Is the comfort level raising taxes? Is the comfort level obligating some BP (oil spill settlement) money? Is some comfort level passing the gaming package?” he said.

Marsh has proposed letting voters decide whether to establish casinos and a state lottery.

However, other lawmakers said there would be strident opposition to taking education dollars without an agreement on how to replace them.

“It’s the ultimate big can kick,” said Sen. Finance and Taxation Education Committee Chairman Trip Pittman, R-Montrose.

The governor had proposed backfilling the education budget with either a new soft drink tax or ending a state income tax deduction for Social Security taxes paid, but those ideas seem to be falling flat with lawmakers.

Despite the divisions, Bentley said he remained cautiously optimistic and praised the leadership in the House for being willing to look at new revenue.

“That is the only solution. There is no other solution,” he said.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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