Tuesday, November 9, 2010

New Republican-led Alabama Legislature plans no new taxes or gambling legislation

Published: Monday, November 08, 2010, 5:30 AM

MONTGOMERY -- The new Republican majorities in the Alabama Senate and House of Representatives won't pass any broad tax increases, GOP leaders said.

''That would be the absolute worst thing to do in this economy, to just burden people even more when they're struggling," said state Rep. Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, the GOP nominee to be the next speaker of the House.

New legislators also won't approve laws to expand gambling in Alabama, Republican leaders said.

''I don't foresee any gambling legislation, lottery or casino, in the next decade," said Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, the GOP nominee to be the next Senate majority leader.

What the new Legislature will do, top Republicans said, is work hard to pass business-friendly laws to encourage companies, especially small ones, to hire more employees, Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and others said.

''We've got to create an overall pro-business climate," said Marsh, the nominee of GOP senators to be the next Senate president pro-tem, the top-ranking senator. He said tax incentives would be part of upcoming proposals.

''We've got to get people back to work," Marsh said. ''We've got to make sure we design these packages that are attractive to small businesses, and we're going to do that."

Hubbard and other Republican leaders said the new Legislature also would push to ban transfers of money among political action committees, which can hide a candidate's true source of campaign funds.

Republican lawmakers also sketched other priorities, including ethics laws and bills on illegal immigration and fighting the federal health-care overhaul, in a ''Handshake with Alabama" platform they issued in August, back when Democrats ran the Legislature.

Before Tuesday, Alabama's House had 60 Democrats, 43 Republicans and two vacancies. It now has 62 Republicans and 43 Democrats.

Before Tuesday, Alabama's Senate had 20 Democrats, 14 Republicans and one independent. It now has 22 Republicans, 12 Democrats and one independent.

Newly elected lawmakers took office last week and are scheduled to meet Jan. 11 to formally elect their leaders. The 15-week regular session of the Legislature starts March 1. But the Legislature could meet in the next two months if Gov. Bob Riley were to call a special session on ethics legislation.

Gov.-elect Robert Bentley, a Republican who is to be inaugurated Jan. 17, and top Republican legislators say a huge issue they'll face right off the bat in the regular session is passing balanced budgets for the 2012 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

Among other problems, Alabama's education budget and its operating budget for non-education agencies together will have as much as $895 million in federal stimulus money this year, but could have none in fiscal 2012.

Making up that kind of loss when state tax collections overall have been falling or growing slowly in the aftermath of the Great Recession may not be possible.

Bentley, who will have to propose state budgets for fiscal 2012, said he hopes to negotiate payment from oil giant BP to compensate the state for sales tax and income tax revenue lost because of the Gulf oil spill. Bentley said money from BP could help boost the state's Education Trust Fund and General Fund.

But he said that, even if money from BP comes through, there likely will be cuts in many areas of state spending in fiscal 2012. ''If we don't have the money, we don't have any choice," he said.

A huge influence the switch in party control in the Legislature likely will have is in redistricting, Waggoner and others said. The Legislature is supposed to redraw Alabama's seven congressional districts in time for the 2012 elections and all the legislative districts in time for the 2014 elections.

Redrawing lines to include some areas and exclude others can change party leanings in a district. ''If I were to list the top three reasons to have a Republican majority, redistricting would be pretty close to the top if not on the top," Waggoner said.


The ''Handshake with Alabama" outlines other GOP priorities that legislators embraced again last week. Among them, Republicans promised to work hard to pass bills to:

*Let state voters rewrite the state constitution to say that individuals, employers and health-care providers in Alabama could opt out of the federal health care law passed by Congress in March.

*Create a new state trespass law that would let law enforcement officers arrest illegal immigrants ''for simply setting foot in Alabama." It could be enforced only if someone first was stopped on suspicion of another crime.

*Expand tax incentives for businesses that hire people who are unemployed.

*Expand tax credits for small businesses that provide health insurance to employees.

*Limit the change in state Education Trust Fund spending for an upcoming year to the average percentage change in revenues over the preceding 15 years. If tax collections exceeded the spending cap, the extra money would go into rainy day reserves.

Advocates say proration, the across-the-board budget cuts imposed when tax collections fall below forecasts, would be much less common under such a law.

*Require the reporting of all spending by lobbyists on legislators and other state officials.

*Give the state Ethics Commission the power to issue subpoenas.

*Ban ''double dipping" by legislators. The platform doesn't define double dipping, but Waggoner predicted Republicans would propose banning legislators from holding other taxpayer-funded jobs, which would force employees of public schools, universities and state agencies to choose between keeping those jobs and serving in the Legislature.

Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, said voters should hold Republicans accountable. ''If we don't address the issues that we have said we would, then we ought to be fired," Beason said. ''We've got an opportunity to prove to people that we can lead and we can govern."

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