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Riley focuses on reform

Gov. Bob Riley drew applause from legislators Tuesday in his second State of the State address, calling for no new taxes and changes in public employee benefit packages and cuts in Medicaid.

The state's priority, Riley said, should be focusing on accountability measures before tackling education, state budgets and health care issues.

"We can make this the most accountable, cost effective, efficient government in the nation," Riley said.

Riley called on legislators to move into a special session to take up some two dozen accountability measures before taking up the budgets.

According to the governor's office, the accountability package includes 12-year term limits for legislators starting with the 2006 elections, a ban on legislators' "pass-through pork" and tougher requirements for the Legislature to override the governor's veto.

Lobbyists would also have to report any effort made to influence the executive branch of government and to disclose all expenditures made for entertaining public officials and employees.

"We have to prove to the people that we're serious about reforming state government Š accountability must come first. Not gambling. Not revenue. Not budgets," he said.

During his first year in office, Riley said his administration had lopped $400 million from the budget and that his 2005 budget proposal contains another $300 million in cuts.

"We no longer have the luxury of using taxpayer money for non-essential services," Riley told the Legislature in the televised speech.

"We can fund only the most basic needs of government and must resist the temptation to restore non-essential services," he said.

His budget, which is expected to be forwarded to the Legislature on Thursday, includes $87 million for new textbooks, classroom supplies and teacher training, and Riley called for an expansion of the Alabama Reading Initiative to include kindergarten through third grade.

However, Riley said that cuts in personnel costs would be required to balance the budget.

"We have two choices - massive layoffs or reduce benefits," he said, thanking teachers and state employees for their work.

"These choices are not punitive. We're making these choices because you're too valuable Š I'd rather see these changes than see thousands laid off," he said.

Riley also said his budget would protect cost-of-living-adjustments for retired employees, but said changes in benefit packages such as health insurance and retirement would have to change.

"Š there's $350 million in the growth of medical costs and explosive growth in health care and we ask those in the program to be a part of the solution," he said.

Wade Green, president of the Pike County Chapter of the Alabama Retired State Employees Association said if the governor sticks to his word, "he might do some good."

"He has said he's not going to bother the retirees that are locked in and their benefits wouldn't be changed. If he'll stick with that and treat us right along with the teachers and state employees, I think he'll do some good," he said.

For state Rep. Alan Boothe the speech didn't hide any surprises.

"I support what the governor had to say in a lot of respects," he said.

"I didn't hear anything that was a shock Š It's just a matter of getting a budget and who's going to pay for it."

Boothe said personnel costs make up the largest part of both the general and education budgets - 90 percent - and was realistic about what the governor's no-new-taxes stance would mean.

"If we're going to cut the budget by $300 million without raising taxes, that's where it's going to come from," Boothe said.

"We have a real challenge ahead of us and we're going to do all we can to protect teachers, state employees and retirees Š as the governor said, we're not going to balance the budget on the backs of those folks,"

he said.

Boothe said that while he supported many of the governor's proposals, if the Legislature is to enact all of the budget, some new revenue would be required.

"At some point, we've got to realize that we have to cut the services we offer or raise revenues. I think that's what the Legislature will do, continue to cut as long as possible," he said.

State Sen. Wendell Mitchell agreed that balancing the budget with no new revenue measures may be a difficult task.

"The only solution (the speech) offered, it seemed to me, was more cuts. That may be adequate, but my reading is that it might not be adequate," he said.

Mitchell and Boothe both pointed out the governor said he would veto any new tax measure sent to his desk.

Both Pike County legislators also agreed that accountability and reform measures could be handled without a special session.

"He asked for a special session and I'm opposed to that," Boothe said. "Why spend $400,000 on a special session?"

Mitchell, however, said he would support a special session if that's what the governor wanted.

"I recall him saying that if we passed all of the accountability measures, we wouldn't need any new revenue Š He's our leader and I'm willing to give him a chance to prove those things are true," he said.