Budget Shortfall Looms as Legislative Session Begins

Gov. Bob Riley delivers his state of the state address Tuesday night.
Gov. Bob Riley delivers his state of the state address Tuesday night.

It's happening again. The state is in another financial pinch. And no one seems to know what to do about it.

Tuesday marks the opening day of this year's legislative session. But before it even starts, lawmakers are facing a $250 million hole in the state's general fund budget. And that's not including new funds the various departments and agencies have asked for.

The general fund budget pays for pretty much every government program in the state, except for education. That includes medicaid, public safety, state prisons, and more.

It's the same problem lawmakers have been dealing with for years. House Speaker Seth Hammett says, in the past, the state has taken a band-aid approach. And he's worried the same thing will happen this year.

"I'm afraid that you're not going to find a majority of the members that are in agreement that we should permanently fix the problem this time," Hammett told WSFA 12 News.

Lt. Governor Lucy Baxley, who heads the senate, says people aren't willing to pay more in taxes because they don't feel the government has eliminated enough waste. But she says departments have already been cut to the bare bone.

"We obviously need more money, but the money comes from the people and if the people aren't willing to pay more money, it's a serious question," Baxley said.

Many agree that new taxes may be the only solution. A new Associated Press survey finds that 45% of lawmakers favor new taxes, while only 20% are opposed to them. 35% are undecided.

But whether new taxes are even considered or not is up to Governor Riley. Lawmakers say it's the governor's job to offer solutions, and then convince the legislature to pass them.

"I, like all the members of the legislature, am very eager to see what the governor is going to propose," Baxley said.

Hammett added, "we're going to be looking to the governor for that leadership and we'll do our best to help him."

So far, Governor Riley has stayed quiet about his ideas. But we'll all know what he thinks Tuesday night. That's when he delivers the annual State of the State address, outlining his plan for the upcoming session.

You can watch the governor's speech, along with a Democratic response, Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. on WSFA 12.

Besides the budget, other issues expected to come up in this year's session include proposed amendments banning gay marriage and removing racist language from the state constitution.

Reporter: Mark Bullock