Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse - Budgets are priority for this legislative session

  The 2020 Alabama Legislative Session has resumed after a six-week hiatus due to the coronavirus shutdown of the state and the nation. The session must end by May 18. The only thing they will do is pass barebones budgets. 

  The most important - and actually the only constitutionally-mandated act that must be accomplished - is the passage of the state budgets. In our case, we have two state budgets. We have a general fund like 45 other states, and we have a second one, the Special Education Trust Fund budget. 

  Like all states, power is where the money lies. Therefore, the power in the legislature rests with the chairmen of the budgetary committees. Whoever keeps the purse strings is in a powerful position.

  Since the Alabama Constitution dictates that all money bills, taxes, and budgets must originate in the House of Representatives and since the education budget now dwarfs the general fund to the tune of a 2-to-1 margin, the most relevant committee chairman in the state legislature is Rep. Bill Poole (R-Tuscaloosa), who chairs the House Ways and Means Education Budget Committee. He essentially begins crafting the education budget. His counterpart in the Senate, who helps to slice the education pie, is Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur).

  The chairman of the General Fund Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives is Rep. Steve Clouse (R-Ozark). He has been chair of this committee for close to a decade and has done a yeoman’s job. His counterpart in the Senate is Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Escambia).

  The Alabama Constitution clearly defines the three branches of government. The legislative branch makes the laws; the governor is the administrator of state government, and the judicial branch defines and enforces the laws made by the legislature.

  However, over the course of our history, we have had some very powerful governors who have stepped into the legislative budgetary powers and usurped the power granted to the legislature. The most notable example would be George C. Wallace. Not only did he usurp the power of legislators; he made the legislature an appendage of the governor’s office.

  During my first term in the Alabama Legislature, 1982-1986, which was congruently Wallace’s last term as governor, he selected the speaker and the chairmen of all the House committees. His office sent the agenda for each legislative day down to the Rules Committee, which simply rubber-stamped the governor’s agenda. Needless to say, the state budget was written and decided upon by the governor. Since the Wallace days, the legislature has taken back its inherent powers.

  Gov. Don Siegelman worked well with the legislature. However, Fob James had very little influence on the legislature. He somewhat looked down on lawmakers, and in turn, they left him out of the process. Guy Hunt was left out because he really did not understand the process.

  Bob Riley was totally ignored by the legislature. The partisan divide between the Republican and Democratic parties had set in. Riley was a Republican, and we had a state Senate controlled by Democrats. They were not about to let Riley into their hen house.  

  Robert Bentley was completely inept and ineffective with the legislature. Even though he had been a state representative, Bentley really had no relationship with the House or the Senate leadership and seemed averse to cultivating them.  

  Our current governor, Kay Ivey, has significant input into the state budgets. Not in the way that Wallace did, but in a way designed by the constitutional founders.

  Governor Ivey works in partnership with the legislative budget chairmen – Poole, Clouse, Orr, and Albritton. She has a close working relationship with the legislators, built by decades of working within state government as a higher education lobbyist, Alabama Treasurer, and Alabama Lieutenant Governor.

  Alabama Representative Dexter Grimsley lost his older sister to the coronavirus. She was a nurse. "Big Dexter" is cherished and beloved by his legislative colleagues. He is a gentle giant and a true gentleman. HE has represented Abbeville and Henry County with distinction for over a decade. 

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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