Ken Hare In Depth: Bentley signs budget, special session still possible

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The wait is over, well sort of over. Gov. Robert Bentley has signed the state education budget for fiscal year 2015, a budget that does not include the two percent pay increase that Bentley has said he wanted for public school teachers and other education personnel.

But this is an election year, so the public should not be surprised that it won't be that simple.

In a morning press conference announcing that he had signed the budget a few minutes earlier, Bentley left open the possibility that he still might call a special session of the Legislature in late summer or early fall to consider a teacher pay increase for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Bentley even joked that he might call the session right before the November general election. He may have been joking, but the joke underscored how virtually everything can be seen as political in an election year.

For instance, House Minority Leader Craig Ford (D-Gadsden) issued a statement calling the governor's budget decision and support for a teacher pay increase "election-year rhetoric."

The statement said, "There is no reason to delay calling a special session, other than to allow Republican legislators to campaign in their primaries, and then come back this summer to try and win back educators' votes before the general election."

If Bentley does call a special session after the GOP primary but before the general election, he would leave himself open to criticism that he was attempting to appeal to conservative voters in his primary, while catering to the education lobby in the general election. (Bentley won office four years ago with the help of the Alabama Education Association.)

However, Bentley staunchly maintained in his press conference that the reason for the delay was to see how revenue numbers were doing before possibly calling a special session to look at a teacher pay increase.

That makes sense. But it does beg this question: If Bentley was so sure that the money for a two percent pay increase, estimated to cost about $76 million, was there two weeks ago when he was threatening a veto if the Legislature did not include it in the budget, why is it now necessary to wait until late summer?

(An aside: In his press conference, Bentley made a point of saying that he never threatened to veto the budget if it did not contain a two percent teacher pay hike, but only to send it back with "executive amendments." He suggested that the word "veto" was only used by the news media. But as the logicians say, Bentley is drawing a distinction without a difference. The Legislature's own policies describe the process of a governor sending a bill back with executive amendments as a veto.)

Bentley touched on a more practical reason in his press conference: The current attitude among legislative leaders is unlikely to have changed if he had pocket vetoed the budget now and called a special session immediately. Whether their attitudes will have changed by late summer or fall, after the GOP primaries, remains to be seen. If state revenues are up sharply, Bentley probably is right in believing that it is possible.

While the emphasis over the debate is on a raise for educators, readers should note that a special session conceivably could have addressed other good bills that failed to pass late in the session. Most notably of which was legislation to close loopholes in the state's Open Meetings Act.

Rulings by Alabama judges and the state Supreme Court have sledge hammered gaping holes in the opening meetings law, and some well-meaning lawmakers tried diligently to pass a bill closing those holes.

But that bill and some other good legislation, died on the final day of the session when legislative leaders ended the session in order to prevent Bentley from returning the education budget with amendments.

That led to several Republican leaders in the Legislature blaming Bentley for the failure of these bills.

The governor, in turn, used his press conference on Friday to try to shift the blame back to the Legislature, and therefore back to the Republican leadership by saying it was the Legislature's decision to quit with several hours remaining in the final legislative day.

Let me make two points: First, if there is a special session called later this year, Bentley should include the open meetings revisions in his call for the session. Second, everyone should agree that state teachers deserve a pay increase. Whether the state can afford it in fiscal 2015 is the only caveat, and that will be debated at length in the coming campaign season.

So the session ended with a Republican governor and Republican leaders in the Legislature trying to blame one another. Makes one wonder what happened to all that GOP camaraderie and unity so ballyhooed four years ago when the GOP won the governor's office and supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature.

But remember, this is an election year, so blame games and sniping between the governor and legislative leaders, regardless of party affiliation, should surprise no one.


 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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