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‘Most difficult session’|Lawmakers expect tough decisions

By By Kerry Whipple Bean
and Michele Gerlach
the brewton standard

Lawmakers will meet in Montgomery in just over two weeks with what may be one of the toughest agendas in decades.
Alabama is expected to be 30 percent short of what it needs to operate the non-education portions of state government at current levels, or $640 million short. The education budget is expected to be about one-half of 1 percent less than current funding, which is already prorated by 7.5 percent.
When the session begins Jan. 12, the economic challenges the Legislature faces will be compounded by the fact that 2010 is a legislative election year and most members are seeking re-election and don’t want to vote to cut spending.
Sen. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill, who will spend his first session in the Senate after a term in the House, said there will have to be sacrifices.
With back-to-back years of prorated education budgets, many school systems have had to borrow money to operate and others have spent their savings, he said. Unless additional funds appear “the answer may be layoffs unless the economy turns,” he said.
The issue is compounded by the fact that most agencies are seeking increases in funding.
Keahey said school officials and agency leaders have told him they want realistic budgets — not budgets that will be prorated when the new fiscal year begins, as happened with the education budget this year.
Hammett said he expects to see government accountability addressed in the House, including legislation on PAC-to PAC transfers, no-bid contracts and ethics laws for the executive branch of government.
The no-bid contract issue gained attention recently when it was revealed that the Riley administration awarded a $13 million unbid computer contract to Paragon Source, a company that has no listed phone number or Web site.
The argument for no-bid contracts is usually that no one else can do the work, he said.
Hammett said the House also will advance a plan to put Alabamians to work building roads.
One way Hammett and other Democrats in the Legislature hope to do that is with a road-building program.
The Alabama Trust Fund is a state savings account that contains $2.6 billion in royalties that came from natural gas wells drilled along the state’s coast. Some of the earnings from the trust fund go toward the state budget each year.
Hammett said the Legislature also hopes to do something to stimulate the housing industry in Alabama, but is still working out details of what Legislation might be helpful.
The Legislature also will encourage the executive branch to put together a plan for federal stimulus funds for energy conservation, which creates jobs and helps citizens with energy costs.
Alabama received $30 million from Congress last year, but only about $10 million has been allocated, he said. “We’re getting another $30 million in 2010. The administration has been very slow developing guidelines for that money, which creates jobs and helps with energy bills.
And the legislature also must address issues with the state’s education PACT (prepaid college tuition) program, he said.  Last year, the PACT board suspended new contracts and revealed that assets can pay only a few more years of tuition.
Possible solutions include a state-imposed freeze on tuition rates for PACT recipients, as well as using monies from the Education Trust Fund or the Alabama Trust Fund to meet obligations.