The creaky wheels of the Alabama Legislature started churning Tuesday, and expectations for a rousing spring session are somewhere between lukewarm and glacial. What’s more, any significant successes legislators produce in 2019 will revolve around one item -- money.
That fiscal thread runs throughout several of the pertinent issues the Legislature will face this spring.
Alabama’s prisons need money. My, do they need money. Gov. Kay Ivey last month unveiled a prison-reform plan that carries a $900 million price tag. No one doubts Alabama’s prison plight. Despite recent improvements, the state’s aging prisons remain woefully overcrowded and risk federal intervention. Former Gov. Robert Bentley tried to push a prison-reform package through the Legislature, and failed. Now it’s Ivey’s turn. How she’s going to squeeze that much money from the Legislature will be fascinating theater.
Oh, and don’t forget that the state Department of Corrections has asked for an additional $40 million in the next budget so it can shore up its understaffed roster of officers.
Alabama’s governor wants money to repair roads and bridges. How much? Well, Ivey has proposed a 10-cent increase in the state’s gasoline tax, which hasn’t increased since 1992, thus stunting Alabama’s efforts to keep its roads and bridges in top shape. Instead of jacking up the gas tax overnight, Ivey’s proposal calls for the increase to be phased in over three years and spread over all 67 counties, the Alabama State Docks in Mobile and other infrastructure projects. Governor’s office estimates show a $55 annual increase in gasoline spending for the average Alabama driver.
Yet, there’s turmoil.
Ivey, a Republican, wants the gas-tax increase and may have to call a special session to get it. The gas-tax bill is sponsored by a Republican, Rep. Bill Poole, of Tuscaloosa. A host of Republican-friendly organizations -- such as the Business Council of Alabama -- support it. But the Alabama Republican Party Executive Committee is against it. Like finding money for state prisons, securing support for a gas-tax increase will dominate this spring’s headlines.
Alabama needs to solve its lottery problem, which could inject money into public education. That’s been an Alabama headline for more than a decade, and yet we have little confidence this can won’t again get kicked down the road.
It’s also one of Alabama’s damning political dilemmas. Our neighbors -- Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida -- have either state lotteries or legalized gambling, and yet Alabama remains one of the five states that don’t have a lottery. Those nearby states have somehow maneuvered the delicate political and cultural impediments to using legalized gambling to fund schools and other needs. Alabama, with its confusing gaming compact with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and a tired and controversial history of lobbying efforts against gambling, is the Deep South outlier.
Our best guess is that the legislative session that began this week will end with a few opportunities squandered and money remaining on the table.