Here comes the Legislature

Published 11:09 pm Wednesday, February 3, 2016

House Republicans have announced their agenda. Gov. Robert Bentley has promised some initiatives that will excite Alabamians, but is saving them for his State of the State speech. The major news so far from the Senate is the effort by President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, to change tenure protection for teachers.

Live from Montgomery, it’s the “Gathering at Goat Hill,” aka the 2016 session of the Alabama Legislature.

We shouldn’t be silly about something so serious, although it’s difficult not to given the histrionics, shenanigans and trickery seen in past sessions, even before the 2010 GOP revolution. We expect more of that this time, including a few new flipping-offs at Washington over issues that aren’t the Legislature’s concern (there are some in the House GOP agenda), to fire up folks who didn’t get the messages of the 1860s or the 1960s about federal supremacy.

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Hopefully, most of the attention will be directed closer to home, primarily at a General Fund budget that’s likely to be short again, raising the possibility of funding cuts for state agencies.

It took two special sessions to get that done last year. Bentley’s call for huge tax increases went nowhere — a quarter a pack tax on cigarettes finally was approved — and he’s not trying that this year.

Republicans in the House, rather than seeking new revenue, want to institute zero-based budgeting, something conservatives have long advocated on both state and federal levels as a means of fiscal accountability. The idea is to start from zero in the budgeting process each year, instead of using the previous year’s budget as a given baseline. That’s supposed to keep agencies from going on spending sprees to maintain funding levels, and force them to justify money they’ve previously received.

It’s an intriguing idea — a key part of presidential candidate Carly Fiorina’s platform — and we don’t have a problem with trying it. We’ll just reiterate that once something’s cut to the bone, it’s hard to go any farther without impeding its ability to function.

We expect a lot of noise about a state lottery and an increase in the gasoline tax to fund road and bridge improvements. That could produce some disputes between religious and more open-minded conservatives on the first issue, and anti-tax absolutists and folks who don’t mind government spending money for a good reason on the second. (Republicans may have a super majority, but it’s decidedly non-monolithic.)

House Republicans also want teacher pay raises, plus a $1,500 tax credit for small businesses for each job created, a process to provide grants for school wireless technology and to create the position of taxpayer advocate at the Department of Revenue. Perhaps the details will be filled in during the session.

Don’t be surprised if there are some surprises. Remember the circumstances of the Alabama Accountability Act’s passage? Could something else be pushed through in the midnight hour? Stay tuned.

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