Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1527: The Special Legislative Session drama

  It was the Final Act of the Special Legislative Session Drama. Was it good? Was it bad? Was it in between? I don’t know, but I am truly glad that this was the Final Act of this Special Legislative Session Drama.

  We had been major players in this Special Session Drama before. Let’s call it Act One and Act Two. We had expected this to be a One Act Drama ending on August 24. It did not. We then expected just one more act – Act Two. The Session was supposed to end on August 26. It did not. We were back for Act Three on Tuesday, September 6. It was supposed to end in one day. It did not. It did end on September 7, 2016. It was the Final Act of this Special Legislative Session Drama.

  Let me review exactly why we were engaged in this drama in the first place. In the 2016 Regular Legislative Session, we passed a General fund Budget with $85 million deficit in Medicaid funding. That $85 million would turn into a $1 billion loss. You see, the $85 million would be matched more than two to one by federal Medicaid funding making the virtual loss about $255 million. Then there was a $755 million grant for Regional Care Organizations conditioned on Alabama at least maintaining the current level of Medicaid. When we add $255 million to $755 million we get one billion, ten million dollars. That’s a tremendous loss. You can see why it was so critical that this $85 million deficit be funded.

  In the First Act of this Special Session Drama, there was an attempt to pass a lottery that included other gaming and a bond issue based on a one billion dollar BP settlement scheduled to be paid over 18 years. The gaming bill failed miserably in the Senate. The lottery bill passed the Senate by the skin of its teeth. The BP Bill passed the House and arrived in the Senate. That was Act One.

  In Act Two, the BP bill simply could not move in the Senate. The lottery bill struggled in the House, was killed, then revived, passed and sent back to the Senate with amendments. It died in the Senate after intense debate. The BP bill was still hanging on for dear life. Act Two ended with us recessing for 10 days to return on September 6.  

  In Act Three, Scene One, the Senate struggled mightily with the BP bill. Finally, it was amended extensively and passed. In Scene Two, the House quickly declined to concur with the Senate changes. It non-concurred and requested a Conference Committee be appointed. The request was sent to the Senate. In Scene Three, the Senate debated for hours. It finally agreed to appoint a Conference Committee. This Third Act was supposed to end on Tuesday, September 6. It did not. We adjourned to come back on Wednesday, September 7.

  Scene Four of Act Three commenced early. However, the Conference Committee meeting set for 9:00 a.m. on September 7 was rescheduled for 10:30 a.m. That was a sign that things were not going well in the Conference Committee. Finally, something happened and a Conference Committee Report was agreed upon.

  We now shift to Scene Five in the House. It was a short scene. It only required a few minutes for the House to approve the Conference Committee Report by a vote of 87-9. The Report arrived in the Senate. Let’s shift to Scene Six which consumed many hours. There was discussion. There was debate. There were negotiations. There was vote solicitation. The scene went on and on.

  The central challenge involved how the bond proceeds would be allocated. The Conference Committee Report proposed $85 million for Medicaid in 2017. In addition, $35 million was proposed for Medicaid in the 2018 budget year. Nothing was proposed for the 2019 year budget which will be considered during the 2018 election year. Legislative courage is always in short supply, but it diminishes even further in years when we are seeking re-election. That’s why some were trying so hard to allocate some funding for the 2019 fiscal year. It was a scene of serious struggling.

  The Conference Committee Report proposed $400 million in repayment to the Alabama Trust Fund for debt incurred since 2009.  It proposed $120 million for highways in Mobile and Baldwin counties. Some argued that we should pay less debt and provide more money for the 2019 Medicaid budget. Therefore they tried to reject the Conference Committee report approved by the House and request a second Conference Committee. Others just wanted to pass the compromise and go home. Finally, the effort to appoint a new Conference Committee came to a vote. It fell short by a vote of 14-16. The Report was then adopted by a 22-8 vote. Finally, the Special Legislative Session Drama came to a greatly anticipated end.

  It was certainly not as good as it should have been. Nor was it as bad as it could have been. I guess that means it was somewhere in between.

EPILOGUE – There is drama in virtually every situation. Sometimes it’s obvious. Sometimes it’s hidden. We just have to know how to detect the drama. More importantly, we must be able to negotiate the drama as we contribute.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

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