Ken Hare In Depth: Split legislative sessions may wait a year - WTVM.com-Columbus, GA News Weather & Sports

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

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

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

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

"Eventually the bill is going to pass," Brewbaker said this week. "It'sobviously 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, aproposal to hold two regular sessions of the Legislature each year may soundlike the worst idea since Ford launched the Edsel or some misguided Coca-Colaexecutive decided to switch to "New Coke."

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

Before you fire up your computer to start emailing me to tell me what an idiotI am, consider this: Under Brewbaker's proposed legislation, the twosessions would not bring lawmakers to Montgomery for any more days than theycurrently spend here. And it should not cost taxpayers any more than the onesession the Legislature now holds.

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

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

In the not-so-distant past, it has been common for consideration of thoseappropriations bills to drag on until the dying days of the Legislature. Oftenit was the wee hours of the last night of the session. Sometimes lawmakers evenwent past midnight on the last day of the session by using the subterfuge of "unpluggingthe clock" and pretending the day had not ended. Occasionally even thatwas not enough, and costly special sessions to consider the budgets becamenecessary.

This rush to pass the budgets at the end of the sessions created a myriad ofproblems. Legislators would sneak questionable provisions -- called "snakes"-- into the bills at the last minute, and many legislators complained that theywere 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 constitutionalamendment in the 1980s adopted a requirement that non-budget legislationcould not be passed before the appropriation bills were passed. To allow foremergencies, the Legislature could get around that provision by adopting a "BudgetIsolation Resolution" by a three-fifths vote.

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

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

Which brings us back to Brewbaker's proposed legislation: It would requirean annual session specifically to pass the state budgets and related moneybills. This session could last up to 10 meeting days. It would be preceded byanother general session to handle all non-budget legislation that could notexceed 20 meeting days.

Currently a regular session of the Legislature can last up to 30 meeting daysduring a window of 105 calendar days. Brewbaker's legislation would allowa 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 ofmeeting days it currently can meet, and those could be spread over the samenumber of calendar days. Therefore there would be roughly the same cost totaxpayers 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'sapproach is that it could allow more time for the state's fiscal experts toestimate what revenues would be for the coming fiscal year. Revenue estimatesnow are due in early February in most years, even though the fiscal year doesnot begin until October. In election years such as this year, budget estimateshave to be made by January.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alabama taxpayers should hope he is right. There are other ways to focusincreased attention on the legislative budgeting process, but right now Ibelieve 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, Alabamavoters 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 pageeditor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

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