Last week marked the end of the 2016 regular legislative session in Montgomery, but after several major bills died in the last hours of debate, it may not be long before lawmakers are headed back to Goat Hill on the taxpayer’s dime to take up the state’s toughest issues.
The Alabama Legislature meets only 30 business days each year, a short amount of time to whittle down the more than 1,000 bills introduced by senators and representatives to the just over 200 that actually reach the governor’s desk. With budgets tight, revenue sparse and lawmakers itching to disagree, the process of addressing the state’s serious problems often cannot be accomplished in just the month of meeting days required by the Alabama Constitution. When this happens, the governor has the power to call legislators back for a shorter “special” session, listing what issues they are to consider.
Alabama is not a stranger to special sessions. Since 2000, 19 have been held. In four of these 16 years, more than one special session was called. In 2001, there were four special sessions. In 2005, there were five. And these sessions don’t come cheap.
Figures from the Legislative Fiscal Office indicate a special session costs on average about $321,000. That means that since 2000, Alabama taxpayers have spent in excess of $6 million on these occurrences.
Now, in 2016, we may spend another $321,000. After several important bills did not make it out alive during this year’s regular session, Gov. Robert Bentley and some lawmakers are already saying a special session is possible, even likely.
One of the stalled bills was an $800 million bond issue supported by Bentley to fund the construction of four new prisons in the state to replace outdated and overcrowded facilities. Although a scaled-back version of the plan passed through a conference committee, the House failed to act on the measure before the Legislature’s midnight deadline last Wednesday, effectively killing it.
Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard told reporters just after the session ended he just wasn’t comfortable with last-minute changes a conference committee made to the plan.
“I don’t want to pass something that looks like it was figured out on the back of an envelope in two hours,” he said. “This is something we had worked on for months and were comfortable the numbers worked.”
Just hours after Hubbard’s midnight statement on the bill’s failure, Bentley said supporters of the proposal just didn’t have enough time to explain the changes to their colleagues — changes meant to help the bill gain passage.
“If we had been able to explain that, we would have been able to get it through,” Bentley told reporters. “It is a disappointment, but we are not going to give up on this. This is a major, major problem in the state.”
Asked whether he’ll be calling another session, the governor said it was a serious possibility, but legislators need time to think over the issue.
“Everybody’s got to rest a little bit right now,” he said.
Also killed on the last day of session — and the subject of Lagniappe’s cover story last week — was a bill allocating funds from the state’s BP settlement to repay state debt and fund some road projects. The bill would also have used a small portion of the $1 billion BP settlement to patch an $85 million hole in the state’s Medicaid budget this year.
The Senate had first passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Hightower that would have focused the BP money on funding road projects, particularly those in Mobile and Baldwin counties. When the bill got to the House, though, members made clear the coastal counties would not be seeing such a vast share of the settlement. Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) particularly opposed sending the BP money to roads projects in coastal counties.
“The intransigence of some to want all the road money for themselves, that hurts the ability to pay the debts back,” he said.
Others made little fuss over where the BP money would go, but instead wanted to focus on funding the gap in the Medicaid budget.
“Whatever BP settlement plan is finally approved,” Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed wrote in a statement, “I urge my colleagues to fully fund Medicaid reform so the foundation of rural health care in Alabama can be saved.”
Alas, though, the bitter back and forth between state lawmakers went on too long. Now, no BP bill has been sent to the governor’s desk and the hole in Medicaid funding is left agape: inaction which may lead to a special session, and another $321,000 flushed down the fiscal drain.