The special session we all knew was coming was here earlier than expected... and then it was gone, at least for a while.
So what just happened? Gov. Robert Bentley, flexing his gubernatorial muscles, surprised his Republican colleagues in the Legislature by calling a special session to address the state's General Fund budget earlier than expected. But the Legislature responded by recessing until Aug. 3.
Legislative leaders said they thought they had an understanding that the session would be called by the governor to start in mid-August. Since a special session can last for up to 30 days, that would have allowed lawmakers to not pass a budget until only a few weeks before it would go into effect for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
In other words, if Bentley had called the session for mid-August, the 30-day clock would have started then. By calling it for July 13, the clock started running on that date.
So even though the Legislature won't actually start working until August, Bentley has ensured that this session will end by mid-August instead of mid-September. That will give him some wiggle-room to call another session before Oct. 1 if the Legislature does not give him a budget that he feels he can live with. Even if the Legislature does pass a budget he can support, it would allow state agencies a few weeks to prepare for transitioning to the new budget.
So what should Alabamians expect to come out of this special session? That depends upon the homework that the various interests do between now and Aug. 3.
One key issue is whether legislation to allow an expansion of gambling in the state will be part of the session. Bentley says no. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, who seems obsessed with expanding gambling, says yes. Bentley says that since gambling expansion is not included in his call for the special session, two-thirds of the membership of both the House and Senate would have to support bringing it up. Marsh says that since his gambling proposal would come in the form of a constitutional amendment, it would require only a simple majority of the members of each chamber. So the public should stay tuned: the state Supreme Court may have to settle this issue.
When it comes to expanding gambling, I would remind the public of a few points. First, even if approved by the Legislature and the voters, expanded gambling would not start to produce new revenue fast enough to solve the coming fiscal year's budget shortfalls.
Second, as proposed earlier by Marsh, voters would not have a real choice when they go to the polls -- they would have to choose to take casino-style gambling and a lottery as a package deal. Voters should be able to choose either a lottery or casinos, or both, or neither. If Marsh means what he says about giving voters a choice, then he will change his proposal.
Finally, earlier proposals would have asked voters to approve expanding gambling without knowing the details of how it would be taxed and regulated and managed -- details that would have to be worked out later. If the Legislature sends a constitutional amendment to the voters without such details, lawmakers in essence would be asking the voters to trust them to do what is right for the public and not gambling interests.
But back to next year's General Fund budget, which is what this session really should be about.
Bentley is proposing a package of new taxes different from what he proposed in the regular session and which the Legislature rejected.
His proposals would:
?If lawmakers don't want to end the deductibility of Social Security taxes, Bentley has given them an alternative -- a 5-cent tax increase on 12 ounces of soft drinks. That also would raise about $180 million.
Any increase in the tax on tobacco would have a side benefit: It would help to decrease tobacco use. Even if there was not a budget crisis, the state should extend a similar tax to vapor products. The health effects of those products, especially on young people, are still unknown.
When lawmakers return Aug. 3, they will have just a few days left in the special session to produce a workable General Fund budget that will not invite a federal takeover of state prisons or a mass release of prisoners or lost Medicaid services for many of the state's poorest citizens.
Bentley has presented them with some reasonable options. Alabamians should hope they aren't distracted by gambling interests or political grandstanding and return Aug. 3 ready to show leadership on this issue.
Ken Hare is a veteran newspaper editor and editorial writer who now writes a column for wsfa.com.
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