Legislative session nears end – Special session may be needed for budget
Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 6, 2004
As the 2004 regular session of the Alabama Legislature approaches its last few days, the general fund budget remains unfinished and lawmakers find themselves in the position of raising taxes without the accountability measures that had been proposed by the governor.
Gov. Bob Riley is reviewing the education budget, which passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, but the general fund remains incomplete.
Shelby County lawmakers said they had to deal with making up for lower revenues from a couple of sources of interest, such as the education and Alabama trust funds.
Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, said the state has lost about $250 million from the trust funds each of the last three years due to a flat economy, inflation and higher interest rates. The trust funds were created in the 1970s when the state sold oil and gas drilling leases off the coast, according to Hill.
Also, Hill said, the state has had to pay more for employees’ insurance and Medicaid. During the last five years, Hill said the state’s portion of Medicaid costs increased about $200 million each year.
&uot;We just haven’t had the money to keep up,&uot; Hill said.
One step the Legislature has taken to make up for lack of money from the trust funds is the capital investment fund.
This fund is included in the general fund and is set aside for economic recruitment in the state, Hill said.
This year, the state shifted $50 million from the capital investment fund into the general fund to help balance it.
According to Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the House passed both the education and general fund, but the general fund budget which passed was contingent on proposed taxes.
Ward said that at least some of those taxes, such as the utility oil and gas tax, were cut.
Now, the Senate must create a new general fund with smaller projected revenues, requiring extensive cuts. Ward predicted this week that the Legislature will have to call a special session to come up with a general fund budget.
Ward said he was disappointed the governor’s accountability bills failed.
The governor went into this session of the Legislature requesting that members first and foremost consider a series of accountability measures, especially in light of the overwhelming defeat of his tax proposal last September.
Members of the Legislature ignored that request, however.
Ward said he voted against all tax increases during the current Legislative session, since the governor’s proposals for increased government accountability failed.
&uot;Here we are at the end of the session and all we’re talking about is raising taxes,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s a real shame.
&uot;We’re putting money into a broken system. I don’t think that’s what people want,&uot; Ward said.
In Shelby County, residents and leaders had pinned their hopes on a bill to reform the state Department of Transportation.
The reform bill would have helped to capture funds for road construction in the county, because DOT expenditures would have been based on need instead of political promises.
That bill, sponsored by Ward, failed.
Ward said this week that he will bring DOT reform back to the Legislature next year.
He said the exposure the bill received this year will help with future attempts to reform the DOT and the way that road projects are awarded.
&uot;It got a lot of attention this year,&uot; Ward said. &uot;We’ve got to keep pressure on those agencies.&uot;
Also, Ward said county officials must act as effective lobbyists in Montgomery to capture road money for projects needed in the county.
Hill said he was disappointed the DOT reform bill failed.
&uot;I’m sick over it. Just a few senators managed to kill it,&uot; he said.
In order to help fund road construction in the county, Hill said, legislators are working on a severance tax.
The tax would, in effect, charge quarries in the county for taking materials such as limestone out of the ground.
The statewide bill could generate between $800,000 and $1 million in Shelby County, Hill said. All money from the tax would go to road construction.
The severance tax passed the House and awaits vote in the Senate this week.
One local bill regarding zoning in Shelby County does seem to have survived the Legislature this session.
Hill sponsored a bill to extend the number of days permitted to call for a vote on zoning after a petition has been submitted.
The bill passed the House and Senate and is awaiting review by the governor. Hill said this week that he expected the bill to pass.
Previously, a 1972 law stated that a probate judge had 45 days to call for a vote after a petition for zoning was submitted. Hill’s bill would increase the length of time to between 90 and 120 days.
Hill said the amendment brings the 1972 county law into compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
One Shelby County community is expected to call for a zoning vote quickly after the amendment, Hill said.
The Shoal Creek area had already petitioned for zoning, but a subsequent lawsuit called into question the 1972 law’s compliance with the Voting Rights Act, and a judge ruled that any new vote had to get pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Three of the nine beats in Shelby County are already zoned, Hill said. Only unincorporated areas of the county can call for zoning.
Aside from Jefferson County, Shelby County is the only county in the state that has a law permitting zoning in unincorporated portions, according to Hill