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Hammett gives comments on Riley speech

As Governor Riley laid out a grim financial future for Alabama in the coming year, everyday citizens, political pundits and legislators immediately began taking offensive and defensive positions.

However, Seth Hammett (D-Andalusia), Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, took a more logical approach to the governor's comments, realizing how early in the session things are. In a question and answer correspondence with the Star-News, Hammett gave his thoughts on numerous questions the Star-News asked following the State of the State address.

With that in mind, and the fact it is only one full day into the 2003 Legislative Session, the Star-News based its questions solely on the Governor's speech.

As the session progresses, more of the Governor's plan for Alabama will become clear, and many of the current questions will be answered accordingly.

Star-News: The Governor said in order to balance the budget, a cut of 20 percent of the General Fund and 6 percent of the Education Budget was necessary. Does the Speaker feel this is an accurate representation of the fiscal situation facing Alabama today?

Ham-mett: If no additional revenue is found, and the economy does not improve, then the state's fiscal shortfall could equate to 20 percent in the General Fund and 6 percent in the Education Fund.

Star-News: The Governor said 3,200 teachers and support personnel will be laid off due to the cuts, extra-curricular activities will be eliminated, etc. if current fiscal policies continue. Then later, he said it was his mission to: "provide every child in Alabama with a world-class education, that is second to none offered by any state." Wouldn't the elimination of teachers and extra-curriculars actually hinder the quality of education that Alabama's students could, can and should receive?

Hammett: My interpretation of Governor Riley's statement is that, while he is committed to providing a quality education for Alabama's children, the realities of our dire financial predicament necessitate the measures he outlined unless we find a solution. The termination of large numbers of education personnel and educational activities always works to the detriment of our children's future.

Star-News: Follow-up to that question: Does the speaker view the Governor's proposal to give local school boards more control a way of cutting funding, and does that mean the possibility is there for poorer systems in Alabama to close due to inadequate funding?

Hammett: I am uncertain about this at the present time because I haven't seen the details of the Governor's proposal on local school board control.

Star-News: The Governor said he ordered his cabinet and the state's departments to eliminate staff, yet in the revenue department, he wishes to add more auditors to "uncover any unpaid taxes from corporations who are not paying the taxes they owe." Does the Speaker feel it makes sense for several departments to have to eliminate expenses by personnel reductions while another department is allowed to increase its personnel?

Hammett: The Governor has broad authority in personnel matters for certain state agencies. It is his prerogative to adjust staffing within those agencies as he deems necessary and prudent.

Star-News: The Governor said Alabama earmarks entirely too much money from the state budget. If the money is not earmarked, where does the Speaker feel the Governor will move this money to?

Hammett: The Governor has not shared with me his intentions regarding unearmarked funds, so I cannot comment on how such funds would be used.

Star-News: The Governor said he is "hesitant to propose higher taxes," but "dedicated to fairer taxes" - and everything can be accomplished by his plan, although no significant plan was actually offered. Does the Speaker feel this is an accurate representation to solve Alabama's fiscal situation?

Hammett: There is no doubt that Alabama's tax system is in need of comprehensive reform. The Legislature will surely spend many days and nights in the coming months looking for the best possible solution to revamping the current system. It is too early at this time to predict the possible outcome of this work.

Star-News: Finally, the Governor has proposed to close several inpatient mental health facilities and consolidate them with other facilities. Won't this eliminate jobs, which in turn will lower the tax base for an area in order to help fund a locally run school system?

Hammett: I am certain that before any facility was closed, a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis would be completed to determine the most fiscally sound course of action. The Department of Mental Health has been moving for years toward more community-based facilities.

Star-News: Follow-up: With the closure of mental health care facilities, does the Speaker feel that will just shift the burden to other facilities, forcing them to add staff, after staff has already been reduced? Or, will it mean that fewer people will have to work with more patients, or families will be required to bear a much larger percentage of the burden, which they probably aren't equipped to do?

Hammett: These matters are currently under review, and no final decision has been reached.

In an earlier interview with the Birmingham News, before the Governor's speech, and the current session began, Hammett said he was willing to help Governor Riley with his agenda and do what is best for the state.