Legislature struggles to pay its bills through year's end
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Jun 27, 2012 | 4408 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Alabama Statehouse entrance is pictured in this file photo. (AP photo by Dave Martin)
The Alabama Statehouse entrance is pictured in this file photo. (AP photo by Dave Martin)
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The Alabama Legislature is itself struggling to stay in the black for the rest of the fiscal year.

The clerk of the House of Representatives says he’s not sure how the Legislature — the body charged with writing a state budget — would pay for a special session if the Gov. Robert Bentley were to call one before Oct. 1.

“The rest of this year’s going to be mighty, mighty tough,” House Clerk Greg Pappas told The Star an interview this week.

Figures from the Legislative Fiscal Office show that Pappas and his Senate colleagues have about $19.6 million to run the Statehouse through the 2012 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Pay for lawmakers and staff comes out of that sum, as do payments for utilities and security.

So far this fiscal year, the House and Senate have spent roughly $17 million to keep the Statehouse running — with three months left in the year. If both houses were to keep spending at their current rate — $1.8 million per month — they’d hit the $19.6 million mark sometime in August.

Going over the $19.6 million mark isn’t an option, Pappas said. That’s because earlier this year, when state revenues didn’t match projections, Gov. Robert Bentley ordered a 10.6 percent budget cut for state agencies, thereby wiping out a $2.1 million surplus that would have been available otherwise.

Trimming costs is tough, House and Senate staff say, because so much of the budget is bound up in pay for staff and lawmakers.

The House alone pays $437,260 per month to legislators, according to House figures. House staff members are paid on a different schedule than lawmakers, legislative staffers say, but total staff pay averages out to about $360,000 per month according to figures House staff provided.

But Pappas said legislators and staff are already trying to trim expenses.

Citing “news that the Legislature’s budget is running on empty,” House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, told lawmakers in a June 8 memo that the state would not pay for House members’ travel through the end of the year.

Hubbard’s spokesman, Todd Stacy, said the speaker was surprised to hear the severity of the budget situation when Pappas told him about it weeks ago.

“It was unexpected,” he said. “It was a bit of a surprise that it was struggling so much.”

Pappas and Secretary of the Senate Pat Harris say they’ve already decided not to replace legislative staffers who retire this year. Neither Pappas nor Harris had an exact count Tuesday of how many positions that move would eliminate. House officials say the House employs 63 staff; Harris said the Senate has 83 employees.

Harris said both Houses have stopped buying stationery and other supplies, and have postponed paying maintenance contracts for computers and the voting machines in legislative chambers. He said legislative staff members were also considering an end to pay for dozens of House and Senate pages, young people who get a stipend of $25 per day for short stints as helpers in the Statehouse.

Those changes could be moot, given that the House is not scheduled to be in session again before Oct. 1. Even so, voters will go to the polls Sept. 18 to approve an amendment to the state constitution that is intended to patch a hole in the state budget. If the amendment fails, Bentley could call both houses into special session to work on changes to the budget.

“I don’t see how he could avoid that if the amendment fails,” Pappas said.

Stacy, the House speaker’s spokesman, disagreed.

“That’s highly speculative,” he said. “You’re talking about a sequence of events, and all of them have to happen.”

Operating costs for the Legislature are higher when lawmakers are in session. Pappas said the cost is about $80,000 for every week of deliberation.

Statehouse expenses and pay are just part of the total funding for the legislative branch, which maintains separate budget lines for the Examiners of Public Accounts; the Legislative Fiscal Office, which makes budget projections; and the Legislative Reference Service, which drafts and manages bills under consideration by both houses.

But every section of the legislative branch has shrunk considerably in recent years. In 2010, lawmakers budgeted $54 million for the entire branch, and $29 million for Statehouse expenses. This year, after proration, that figure had shrunk to $37 million for the entire branch and $19.6 million for Statehouse expenses.

Those cuts came after a 2010 legislative campaign that focused, at least partly, on concerns about spending in the Statehouse. Many would-be legislators — and former lawmakers running for higher office — campaigned against a 62 percent pay raise lawmakers voted for themselves in 2007. With the pay raise and cost of living adjustments, a House member can expect to make about $51,000 this year, state records show.

A number of legislative staffers make higher salaries, including Pappas, who was paid $199,155 in 2011, and Harris, who was paid $182,926 the same year, according to figures in the state’s online checkbook. Those figures include pay and reimbursements for travel and other expenses.

Harris said laying off staff wouldn’t provide a quick fix to the budget problems, in part because the staffers with the highest pay are longtime employees with significant amounts of leave and other benefits.

“The severance would cost too much,” he said.

Assistant Metro editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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