Ken Hare In Depth: Governor's tweeted budget threat rings hollow

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - If Alabama governors threaten to veto something the Legislature appears ready to pass, they run the risk of having such promises appear to be hollow threats. That's because the governors of Alabama have such weak veto power that such actions easily could be overridden by legislators.

But when a governor issues that veto threat by just "tweeting" it, it rings even more hollow.

Last week sentiment appeared to be building in the Legislature to adopt a budget that does not include the 2 percent pay increase for teachers that Gov. Robert Bentley supports. That prompted Bentley to tweet: "If the Legislature doesn't include my 2% pay raise for teachers & full funding for PEEHIP, I'll send the budget back w/ an Exec. Amendment."

When asked to expand on the Twitter comment, the governor office said the tweet would be its official statement.

That, quite frankly, isn't likely to work. It raises the question of whether Bentley is serious about his pay increase proposal or just simply trying to make points with educators prior to the coming elections.

Alabama governors have a remarkably weak veto power, except for bills passed at the very end of a session. That's because lawmakers can override a veto by a governor simply by a majority vote. Since they need a majority vote in each legislative chamber to pass a bill in the first place, it usually isn't very difficult to get a simple majority to override a veto.

As a writer who is partial to Shakespearean allusions, it is tempting to turn to Macbeth and write that veto threats by Alabama governors are "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

But that's not completely true. There are times when a veto by a governor can be effective.

Consider, for instance, when the Legislature several years ago passed a bill increasing its pay by more than 60 percent in one fell swoop (to use another phrase from Macbeth).  Legislators did so by an unrecorded voice vote.

That prompted then-governor Bob Riley to veto the pay raise bill. His veto still was overridden by legislators, but that required a recorded vote. So while the pay raise passed, at least Riley was able to use his veto effectively to put individual legislators on the record as supporting the increase. And some observers believe that the legislators' vote for such a large pay increase caused many of them to lose their next re-election effort, and that helped to speed the shift from a Democrat-dominated to a Republican-dominated legislature in the state.

Other governors have vetoed bills, then used their bully pulpit to campaign to persuade the public to pressure their legislators to sustain those vetoes.

But by simply tweeting his threat, and not following up with press conferences or public appearances or speeches to underscore that threat, Bentley leaves the impression that he is not serious about it.

Maybe he'll change a few minds among legislators, but it doesn't look like it as of this writing.

For instance, House Speaker Mike Hubbard told the news media that he is concerned that the governor's pay and educator health insurance proposals could put next year's budget into proration if approved.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh of Anniston was quoted as saying, "I'm not going to be a budget buster. Unless you want to mess up the Rolling Reserve Act, there's no way for us to do what the governor is asking us to do."

The Senate approved a budget last week that provides no additional funding for teacher health insurance and replaces Bentley's proposed 2 percent pay increase with a one-time bonus of 1 percent.

But now even that looks iffy. The Associated Press reports that House education budget committee chairman Bill Poole of Tuscaloosa said he will introduce a substitute budget proposal  this week that eliminates the 1 percent pay bonus for education employees approved by the Senate and instead shift that money to the health insurance program for educators. Poole told the AP that a 1 percent bonus wouldn't help educators if they have to use it to pay higher health insurance premiums.

So stay tuned to see if Bentley's budget veto threat will work. But my guess is that it's going to take a lot more than just a tweet for it to have much effect.


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

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