Ken Hare In Depth: Believe it or not, two legislative sessions m

Ken Hare In Depth: Believe it or not, two legislative sessions might be better

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

A state senator has made a proposal that at first glance might send most Alabamians screaming from the room. He wants two regular sessions of the Legislature each year.

But in my opinion, the proposal by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, would be a major improvement over the one regular session the Legislature now holds annually.

Before you start emailing to tell me I've lost my mind, consider this: Under Brewbaker's plan, the two sessions would not bring lawmakers to Montgomery for any additional days than they currently spend here. But split sessions would facilitate the handling of the state budgets, which are by far the most important responsibility the Legislature has. 

[READ THE BILL - Senate Bill 61]

Some background: Each year, the Legislature is required to pass two appropriations bills -- one covering public school and public college funding called the Education Trust Fund, and another covering most other operations of state government called the General Fund.

[BACKGROUND ON BUDGETINGBudget Process Can Be Mind-Numbing]

Prior to the mid-1980s, passage of those appropriations bills routinely dragged on until the dying days of the Legislature, often until the wee hours of the last night of the session. In fact, lawmakers often went past midnight on the last day of the session by using the subterfuge of "unplugging the clock" and pretending the day had not ended. Occasionally even that was not enough, and costly special sessions to consider the budgets became necessary.

The last minute rush to pass the budgets created all sorts of problems. Some legislators often sneaked questionable provisions in at the last minute, and many legislators complained that they were 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 constitutional amendment in the 1980s adopted a requirement that non-budget legislation could not be passed before the appropriation bills were passed. To allow for emergencies, the Legislature could get around that provision by adopting a "Budget Isolation Resolution" by a three-fifths vote.

A legislative glossary defines the BIR as: "The procedure by which the passage of the two budget bills (general and education) is given priority in the regular session. Passage of any other legislation must be preceded by the adoption of a resolution exempting it from the budget isolation process."

Sounds good, right? But over time, the requirement to address the budgets first has essentially become meaningless. Budget Isolation Resolutions pass so routinely now that no one gives them a second thought.

So back to Brewbaker's proposed constitutional amendment: If approved by the Legislature and the public, it would require an annual session specifically to pass the state budgets and related money bills, such as legislation to authorize bond issues. This session could last up to 10 meeting days. It would be preceded by another general session to handle all non-budget legislation that could not exceed 20 meeting days.

Under current law, a regular session of the Legislature can last up to 30 meeting days during a window of 105 calendar days. Brewbaker's legislation would allow a 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.

The bottom line: The same number of meeting days, the same number of calendar days, and the same cost to taxpayers, but the state would have true budget isolation.

Another advantage to Brewbaker's approach is that it could allow more time for the state's fiscal experts to estimate what revenues would be for the coming fiscal year. Currently, revenue estimates are due in early February most years for a fiscal year that does not begin until October. Allowing those estimates to be made six or eight weeks later might serve to make them more accurate.

Brewbaker said the genesis of the idea came from a comment at a town hall meeting in Elmore County where a constituent said, "If you want to isolate the budget, then why don't you just isolate the budget?"

"And I thought, 'Well, you've probably got a point.'"

He said after researching the issue, he found other states that do what he now proposes.

He said he did not know if he could get the provision passed this year, "but it's got a lot of support." And he said that he thinks he can get it passed at least over the next two years.

This year, he thinks he will have enough support to at least get it to the floor and have a good debate "and perhaps even pass it."

I believe that perhaps a split of 12 meeting days on the budgets and 18 days on other issues might be better, but that is the sort of detail that can be decided in debate on the bill.

But Brewbaker's proposal deserves to be fully explored by the Legislature. Ultimately,  I believe the public should be given the opportunity to vote on it.

As Brewbaker's constituent said, "If you want to isolate the budget, then why don't you just isolate the budget?"

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

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