Shelby County’s state legislators face hard choices

By most accounts, this year’s legislative session is proving to be in stark contrast to the last, at least in terms of the Alabama Senate.

Early this year, members of the state’s House of Representatives complained openly about the lack of legislation that made it through the Senate in its 2008 session.

“The difference is like daylight and dark. It’s been a love-in,” said State Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, who represents the state’s 41st district. “They passed like 30 bills last Thursday and another 25 yesterday. Of course, they’ve all been non-controversial.”

State Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who represents the state’s 49th district, agreed.

“The fact of the matter is the Alabama Senate is actually doing some work this time,” Ward said. “So far, they’ve been working and been pretty productive. Now, that being said, they really haven’t had to tackle the monster issues yet, like Bingo.”

State Sen. Hank Erwin, R-Montevallo, who represents District 14 in the Alabama Senate, said one tactical move by the Senate leadership has led to accomplishing more this legislative session.

“We are doing a lot more this session. We have already passed more than 100 bills. The reason why is the Senate leadership has learned not to go near gambling,” Erwin said. “That locked us down last year. They’ve learned if you don’t deal with gambling, we will get a lot done. I hope the leadership has learned its lesson.”

The Bingo issue, Ward said, will be “the mother of all showdowns this session.”

Other issues likely to be controversial yet this session include the food sales tax issue, Sunday alcohol sales in Shelby County, balancing Alabama’s budget and funding education.

Food sales tax

An issue many thought was dead for this year has resurfaced.

A bill that would end the state’s portion of the sales tax on food is expected to come before the Alabama House on Tuesday, said State Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin, R-Indian Springs, who represents the 43rd district.

“The bill would take the tax off of food and would not allow for state deductions on income tax for families making over $100,000 or individuals making over $50,000,” she said.

McClurkin plans to vote against the measure, and predicts it will fail.

“I think it’s an increase in a tax. It actually raises $63 million,” she said, “I’ll vote against it on the floor. In fact, I didn’t think it had enough votes to put it on the calendar. They are usually pretty good about not putting things through that don’t have the votes to pass. They either must think they have the votes, or want to get some of us who will vote against it on the record.

Alabaster’s Ward is also against removing the sales tax from food.

“Almost the entire Shelby County delegation is going to be against it,” Ward said. “The idea is good. Everybody to a person wants to see sales tax on groceries end, but trying to make up for lost revenue from that tax is the issue. The way to make it up that’s been presented so far is by raising state income taxes. That means basically raising taxes on the majority of people in Shelby County and other suburban counties like ours.”

In the state senate, Erwin said the food sales tax issue is “still in play, but is not close to a final resolution. There are still some issues to work out to make it fair.”

He said food sales tax has been pushed to a back burner because of more pressing legislation.

“Frankly, we’ve had bigger fish to fry, like solving the problem with the college tuition PACT (Prepaid Affordable College Tuition). That’s moved to front and center,” Erwin said. “Eventually, though, the food sales tax needs to end, but we need to phase it out and make it fair when we do so.”

Sunday alcohol sales in Shelby County

The state’s House of Representatives has passed and sent to the Senate for approval legislation that will grandfather in Shelby County restaurants that currently sell alcohol on Sundays and allow them to continue to do so.

Whether that issue passes muster in the Alabama Senate remains to be seen.

The Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board has informed restaurants in Shelby that currently hold dual licenses – a retail restaurant license that allows for liquor sales Monday through Saturday and a private club license that allows for liquor sales on Sunday – that on Sept. 30, when licenses expire, the club license will not be renewed.

Ward sponsored the legislation passed by the House last week. While it will allow Shelby County restaurants that currently hold a club license to continue to sell alcohol on Sunday, it will not allow any new restaurants to follow suit.

“To be honest with you, right now I want to see it fixed for those businesses that located here under the assumption they could sell alcohol on Sunday. They were told by the ABC Board they could sell alcohol on Sundays. If you came here under that assumption, and then you reversed that, basically I think we lied to them and that’s not right or fair,” Ward said.

Hill said he’s not sure how the legislation will do when it comes before the state Senate.

“I’m really not sure how it will do. I didn’t think it would pass the House,” Hill said.

McClurkin agreed that restaurants who currently sell alcohol on Sunday in Shelby County should be allowed to continue to do so.

“Generally, I do not vote for Sunday alcohol sales. I did vote for that amendment because I think if you take away something they already have, it can be very harmful for businesses,” she said.

If the legislation comes before the state Senate for a vote, Erwin said he will not oppose it.

“I’m against seven-day alcohol sales, but this is about the best deal we’re going to get on this issue. If we brought these restaurants into the deal and they have played according to the rules, we should live up to that deal, so I would allow that bill to go through,” he said.

Bingo

Ward said the “so-called Bingo legislation” really isn’t about Bingo.

“It’s really about slot machines. They call it Bingo, but it’s slot machines,” he said.

Proponents of legalizing Bingo in Alabama would allow it in 14 sites or locations around the state, Ward said.

“Their argument is it would be taxed and the money could be used to help fund Medicaid and education,” Ward said. “I’m against that and in my opinion, that bill will fail.”

He said the current state of casinos in Mississippi is a perfect example why.

“Look at Mississippi. The casinos there are doing very poorly. Many are now closed during the week and open on the weekends only. Very unsightly businesses always come with casinos, businesses we would not welcome in our community. Plus, the amount of revenue Bingo would currently bring in doesn’t live up to the hype. They say we would have $100 million, but at the end of the day, when you have an $8.2 billion budget in Alabama, this would not save us from cuts. To compound that, the amount of money we would spend in combating the problems casinos would bring in, we wouldn’t make any money in the end.”

McClurkin said she doesn’t know when the Bingo issue will come up for consideration in the House, but said it has made it out of the tourism committee.

“I am strongly opposed to (the Bingo bill). What that does is just allow a monopoly for those who already have it. Frankly, I want them all out,” she said.

The legislation would provide special permits for the Bingo operations, which would be taxed and regulated.

“I don’t think that will pass. We have heard the people say no to gambling before,” McClurkin said. However, she said she thinks the courts will ultimately decide the issue in Alabama.

Erwin said the Senate is facing two bills that deal with gambling and Bingo.

“The big one is a big, sweeping Bingo bill that would blast the constitution to pieces and that will fail,” he said.

A second bill before the senate involves Bingo machines in Greene County.

“It’s a more dangerous little snake because if it gets through it will create havoc with current laws on what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. I’ll work hard to try to stop it,” he said. “Anytime you have a local bill, it’s usually a page or two long. This one – Senate Bill 135 – is 20 pages long. That ought to tell you something.”

Alabama’s budget

Ward said the federal economic stimulus bill is likely to stave off any cuts in education funding and will also help with balancing the state’s budget this year.

“The stimulus packages are one of the worst national fiscal policies ever, but in terms of state government, it’s probably going to save our neck,” he said.

Alabama’s state constitution requires a balanced budget.

“We can’t run a deficit. We have to have a balanced budget in the year. However, because of sales tax and income tax revenues being lower than we expected, we end up running a billion short in education. The stimulus money is probably going to save us for a year. We’re going to be able to fill the hole with that money,” Ward said.

He said coming into the session this year, he thought $2 billion would have to be cut from the state budget, “but looking at it now, because of the stimulus money, we’ll probably be dead even.”

McClurkin serves as a member of the House’s government finance and appropriations committee, also known as the budget committee.

“We have done absolutely nothing on the budget this year because we are waiting to see what the stimulus money will do,” she said. “I do think it will help in some ways. I’m very skeptical of taking federal monies, which usually come with strings attached that will make taxes rise in the future.”

McClurkin said her committee would begin work on the budget when the House goes back into session on Tuesday, March 24.

“We should know more about the stimulus money by then. That’s changing every day in Washington,” she said.

Erwin said the federal stimulus package will be little more than “a temporary Band-Aid.” He predicts the Obama Administration and Congress will roll out a second, larger stimulus package worth about “a trillion dollars” this fall.

“This first stimulus package really isn’t helping anything, but it will give us temporary relief for this year. The debate we are going to have in the Legislature is do we use all of that money now or set some aside for the possibility of leaner years coming still,” Erwin said.

He said the best forecast he’s heard is that the economy will begin to turn around in 2010.

“Some are saying even later than that because our economy is based on the world economy. In Alabama, we’re going to be good in 2009, but 2010 is when the real pencil sharpening will take place. We’ve got challenges now, but we’ll need major surgery later,” Erwin said.

Now, during an economic turndown, is a good time to be in Shelby County, he said.

“Shelby County is positioned very well for this challenging economy. We are continuing to grow. There’s been a little bit of a slowdown, but it’s a good place to be during times like this.”

Smoke-free public spaces

McClurkin, who is a cancer survivor, is sponsoring legislation in the State House called the Smoke-free Clean Indoors Act, which would no longer allow smoking in any public building, including private offices located in public buildings and in restaurants, or within 50 feet of any public building.

“There are some exceptions, like cigar bars and free-standing bars, where you know it’s a bar and not just a special smoking section. They would have to declare themselves a bar,” she said.

For McClurkin, the issue is “a no brainer. This just needs to pass. Other states have it and just two weeks ago, Virginia did it. As a cancer survivor, I know how badly we need this.”