Special session number one is in the books. Bring on round two.
Alabama lawmakers on Tuesday ended a special session without a budget as lawmakers remained unable to agree on taxes or cuts to address a looming fiscal shortfall. Gov. Robert Bentley said he will call lawmakers back to Montgomery in a second special session, making another attempt at persuading them to approve $300 million in tax increases to avoid reductions in state services.
“The Legislature was unable to do what their only job is and that is to pass a budget. That was the reason they were called in, and they have failed,” Bentley said in a news conference outside the Alabama Capitol.
“It really boils down to, are we willing to make these drastic cuts and hurt the lives of the people of this state? Are we willing to close down state parks? Are we willing to close down hospitals? Are we willing to tell the children of this state that they can’t get immunizations?”
The budget debate revealed a political chasm between Republicans willing to discuss revenue options and those taking a hard line against tax increases. The GOP has a supermajority in both chambers but hasn’t been able to agree among themselves or with the Republican governor on what to do. Senators passed a cut-filled budget that House members rejected by an overwhelming 92-2 vote on Monday night.
“I’ve never seen a gulf this wide. ….. We have a huge, huge personality driven conflict between the House and Senate. There’s just no way around it,” state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said.
Legislators do agree on one thing. They are urging Bentley to wait a few weeks before bringing them back to Montgomery.
“Until the dynamic changes, you’ve got the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over,” Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Chairman Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said.
Bentley would not say when he would call lawmakers back, but said it would likely be in a few weeks. The session would bump up against the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year, ratcheting up the pressure to get a budget approved.
Alabama’s general fund budget faces a projected $200 million shortfall and needs additional money for Medicaid and prisons and to repay funds borrowed from state coffers.
Proposals such as a cigarette tax, a soft drink tax, ending a state income tax deduction for FICA taxes paid and yanking the money from the separate education budget were floated during the special session but all failed to get enough traction to get to a floor vote.
Senators, representatives and Bentley all expressed frustration. Some lawmakers said Bentley called the session too soon, before agreements were reached.
Bentley said his trust level has declined as he wrangles with lawmakers.
“I have been told many things that have not come to be,” Bentley said.
House and Senate budget chairmen said they are trying to work on bridging divides before lawmakers return.
“We’re back to square one, but I think square one is a lot clearer now,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, said.
Despite two political losses under his belt, Bentley said he remained optimistic, praising senators who said they were willing to make the hard choice and vote for taxes.
Republican Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said senators do not have an appetite for tax increases. He said lawmakers will try to arrange meeting days so they could override any gubernatorial veto of a budget in a second special session.
“You’ve got to have time for an override. I don’t think the governor is going to settle for anything short of several hundred million in tax increases. I really hope this Legislature does not give that to him,” Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, said.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.