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Special Session continues Monday

During the first week of the Special Session following the defeat of the tax referendum, the State Legislature has been pressed to pass a state budget for Fiscal Year 2004. Because of debates over state agencies' funding, including community service grants, discussion of the budget has been minimal.

After a day with little talk of the budget, lawmakers voted Thursday to adjourn and reconvene Monday.

A topic of discussion which has received a lot of attention lately is the possibility of discontinuing some special projects, including community service grants, which would total approximately $11 million.

"The thought of the funding is seen as pork," David Azbell, press secretary for Governor Bob Riley said. "We're looking at massive lay-offs for state employees, and special projects' funding during this time becomes unthinkable."

Allowing legislators to hand out community service grants, at this time, would come with a lot of public backlash, added Azbell.

"Our job is to build the public's trust," he said. "And you can't do that with special interests."

State Superintendent of Education Ed Richardson also disagreed with the proposal of funding outside agencies, including service grants.

"The community service grants aren't in the agencies' proposal yet, but could be at a future date," Richardson said. "I agreed with the original budget the governor sent to the Legislature. Payment to the Rainy Day Fund had begun. But, now it appears they (legislators) will postpone payment and put some of the money into outside agencies."

Richardson said about $36 million of the money will be used for the outside agencies. About $13 million would go to classroom supplies, and another $10 million would go to agencies, such as McWane Center in Birmingham. Also some money would go towards private colleges and universities, he added.

"They're good projects," continued Richardson, "But it's viewed as pork. It's better to have funds which go to a worthwhile formula as a whole."

Andalusia Board of Education Superintendent Pete Kelley said he understands legislators might have to stop awarding service grants, but said the money will be missed.

"In the past, we've had to ask the State for some of the grants," Kelley said. "Some of the money is responsible for putting cameras on the busses and maintenance work for the middle school."

The biggest concern, as a result to the possibility of lack of the grants, is maintenance, added Kelley.

"Funding for maintenance has been cut from $110,000 to $40,000, and now it looks as if it will be less than that amount," he said.

Some cuts will be in effect immediately, even with the passage of a state budget.

"Funding for textbooks has been zeroed out, funding for library books has been zeroed out, and funding for technology has been zeroed out," Richardson said. 'High Hopes' funding has also been cut by one-half.

Local schools aren't immune from some of the cuts, Kelley added.

"Programs such as Accelerated Mathematics and Accelerated Reader would be cut immediately," he said. "Right now, we have a lot of needs, and we won't be able to do anything with out budget until we wait and see what happens in the Legislature."

House Speaker Seth Hammett said community service grants aren't a priority in the midst of the state budget crisis.

"Community service grants have been beneficial to schools in our area, but I don't think they can be included in the budget given our current situation," Hammett said.

The time for passing a budget will be tight, added Hammett.

"I was concerned that the governor asked us to wait until after the September 9 vote to address the budgets," he said. "But given this challenge, we will do all we can to meet it.

"I am confident the Legislature will pass both budgets before Oct. 1. If the budgets don't pass, then the state will not have any authority to spend any money outside of funds encumbered from this fiscal year."

The Andalusia Public Library would be directly affected if budgets aren't passed in the session, Karin Taylor, the library's director, said.

"If budgets aren't passed, Alabama Library Service (in Montgomery) may have to close their doors," Taylor said. "We've also lost 10 percent of our funding through state aide."

Taylor added the cuts won't hurt the library too badly, because of federal funding for books.