Ken Hare In Depth: Split legislative sessions may wait a year - WSFA.com Montgomery Alabama news.

Ken Hare In Depth: Split legislative sessions may wait a year

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

State Sen. Dick Brewbaker of Montgomery says he believes it is just a matter of time before the Alabama Legislature adopts his proposed legislation to create two regular legislative sessions each year instead of the one lawmakers now hold. But he said that last year as well.

And it's probably not going to pass this year, either.

"Eventually the bill is going to pass," Brewbaker said this week. "It's obviously the right thing to do."

However, he said this does not look like the year in which it will be adopted, even though it has moved out of a Senate committee.

To those readers who don't follow the legislative budgeting process closely, a proposal to hold two regular sessions of the Legislature each year may sound like the worst idea since Ford launched the Edsel or some misguided Coca-Cola executive decided to switch to "New Coke."

But like Brewbaker, I believe this is the right thing to do. And I believe it should be approved sooner rather than later.

Before you fire up your computer to start emailing me to tell me what an idiot I am, consider this: Under Brewbaker's proposed legislation, the two sessions would not bring lawmakers to Montgomery for any more days than they currently spend here. And it should not cost taxpayers any more than the one session the Legislature now holds.

But split sessions would facilitate the handling of the state budgets, which are the Legislature's most important  responsibility each year.

As I noted in a column last year when Brewbaker introduced identical legislation,  the Legislature is required by the state constitution to pass two appropriations bills each year -- the Education Trust Fund, which covers public school and public college funding, and the General Fund, which covers most other operations of state government.

In the not-so-distant past, it has been common for consideration of those appropriations bills to drag on until the dying days of the Legislature. Often it was the wee hours of the last night of the session. Sometimes lawmakers even went past midnight on the last day of the session by using the subterfuge of "unplugging the clock" and pretending the day had not ended. Occasionally even that was not enough, and costly special sessions to consider the budgets became necessary.

This rush to pass the budgets at the end of the sessions created a myriad of problems. Legislators would sneak questionable provisions -- called "snakes" -- into the bills at the last minute, and many legislators complained that they were forced to vote on appropriations that they had not had time to study.

To address the issue, lawmakers and the state's voters in a constitutional amendment in the 1980s adopted a requirement that non-budget legislation could not be passed before the appropriation bills were passed. To allow for emergencies, the Legislature could get around that provision by adopting a "Budget Isolation Resolution" by a three-fifths vote.

The Legislature's Web site defines the BIR as: "The procedure by which the passage of the two budget bills (general and education) is given priority in the regular session. Passage of any other legislation must be preceded by the adoption of a resolution exempting it from the budget isolation process."

While that may sound good, over time the requirement to address the budgets first has essentially become meaningless. Budget Isolation Resolutions pass so routinely now that no one gives them a second thought.

Which brings us back to Brewbaker's proposed legislation: It would require an annual session specifically to pass the state budgets and related money bills. This session could last up to 10 meeting days. It would be preceded by another general session to handle all non-budget legislation that could not exceed 20 meeting days.

Currently a regular session of the Legislature can last up to 30 meeting days during a window of 105 calendar days. Brewbaker's legislation would allow a general session of up to 20 meeting days in a span of 60 calendar days, followed by a budget session of up to 10 meeting days in a 45-day window.

In other words, each year the Legislature could meet for the same number of meeting days it currently can meet, and those could be spread over the same number of calendar days. Therefore there would be roughly the same cost to taxpayers for the two sessions as they currently pay for one.

And finally, the state should have true budget isolation.

As I noted in the earlier column, another advantage to Brewbaker's approach is that it could allow more time for the state's fiscal experts to estimate what revenues would be for the coming fiscal year. Revenue estimates now are due in early February in most years, even though the fiscal year does not begin until October. In election years such as this year, budget estimates have to be made by January.

Allowing those estimates to be made six or eight weeks later might serve to make them more accurate.

I also like Brewbaker's proposal for another reason: I believe it would involve more lawmakers in the budgeting process. Too often now the budgets are crafted by only a handful of legislators. And often when the House and Senate versions differ, the final version is put together at the last minute by an even smaller group of legislators serving on a conference committee.

So if split sessions are such a good idea, why is it not going to pass this year?

First, it's an election year, and many legislators don't like to tackle anything controversial or complicated in an election year. They simply want to get through the session as quickly as possible so they can stay home to campaign.

And while Brewbaker didn't say this, I believe another factor causing some in a leadership position in the Legislature not to actively support this bill is a reluctance to share control of the budgets with fellow lawmakers. In other words, they like being among the handful of legislators who know exactly what is happening with the budgets.

Also, Brewbaker believes the shaky condition of the budgets makes some of this colleagues reluctant to change anything that could affect them.

"With the General Fund especially, we're working without a net," Brewbaker said.

But the Republican senator said that in future years, "I think if we can get any slack at all in the budgets, it will pass."

Alabama taxpayers should hope he is right. There are other ways to focus increased attention on the legislative budgeting process, but right now I believe Brewbaker's proposal is the best one on the table. At the very least, legislators should debate it on the floor of both chambers.

If lawmakers do not pass this legislation in the current session, Alabama voters should ask their legislators why they didn't support it.

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

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