Governor calls for special session

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Governor Bob Riley laid all the cards out on the table Tuesday night in his State of the State address to the Alabama Legislature and citizens of Alabama.

With the four top Democrats in Alabama - Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, Speaker of the House Seth Hammett, Senate President Pro-Tem Lowell Barron, and Speaker Pro-Tem Demetrius Newton - perched solidly behind him during the speech, Riley laid out his hopes and plans for the state in the upcoming legislative session. The governor, as expected, focused heavily on accountability and reform in Alabama. However, Gov. Riley did slip in his request for the Legislature to recess from the day-old regular session, into a special session "focused solely on accountability and reform."

A request that drew sharp criticism from Lt. Gov. Baxley after the speech.

In an interview with WSFA-12 in Montgomery immediately following the address, Baxley questioned why the governor chose to just now call a special session.

"Why haven't we dealt with accountability and reform over the past five months?," Baxley said. "This is all due to the September 9 vote - why are we waiting until now?"

In his speech, Gov. Riley said his agenda for the coming year was the people's agenda.

"Alabamians want an open and honest government that is both responsive to their needs and responsible with their money, and they want a state government that lives within its means - just like they do," Riley said. "This is the people's agenda. It's my agenda. We must now make it our agenda."

To fulfill that "agenda," the governor spoke of the more than $400 million in cuts that have already been made in state expenditures, and proposed another $300 million in additional cuts.

"We no longer have the luxury of using taxpayer money for any purpose other than core services," the governor said. "And I ask each of you to remember that our sole responsibility is to the people who support this government. We must continue to fund only the most basic needs of government and resist the temptation to reinstate non-essential spending."

Riley continued that the proposed cuts "are difficult to propose and to implement," but are necessary to make Alabama's financial problem disappear.

"I ask the help of all in this chamber tonight to hold the line on these reductions," he said. "These difficult decisions have been put off for too many years but we can - and we must make them now."

Although the governor spoke of additional cuts and reduced spending, he did not list any specific cuts to be made.

At least not on the surface. He did, however, give a small taste of what some of the cuts could be.

Facing a $185 million shortfall in the state's Medicaid budget, rising costs of teacher and employee health benefits - which face a $175 million budget shortfall, Gov. Riley said he has instructed Medicaid Director Carol Herrmann to cut Medicaid's growth by half in the next fiscal year.

As for the teachers and state employees, Gov. Riley summed it up with a simple statement - "massive layoffs or adjust benefits."

An adjustment in state benefits, especially for educators, is likely to draw a bloody fight from the Alabama Education Association, and its Executive Secretary Paul Hubbert, who have vowed to fight to keep every benefit the way it is Š or better them.

Although he spoke of cuts to spending, the governor said he would not entertain any broad-based taxation on the citizens of Alabama.

"Let me be clear: I will not seek, nor support, any new broad-based taxes in this session and if this Legislature enacts my proposed budget and reforms, none will be needed," Gov. Riley said.

It wasn't all cut this, cut that and slice and dice from the governor. In fact, the governor was quite optimistic in Alabama's future in several areas.

From the revitalization taking place in Alabama's port city of Mobile - with it's under-construction cruise ship terminal and RSA-funded building projects - to the high tech industry base in Huntsville, the governor said the state stands poised to leap light years ahead of other states.

"Recently President Bush announced his plan to send Americans back to the moon and then on to Mars. We must unite as a state to ensure that Alabama is the first stop on that journey," Gov. Riley said. "Tonight I am proud to announce the Alabama Space Exploration Initiative which will create a partnership between state government, Marshall Space Center, our colleges and research universities, and industry to strengthen our capabilities in support of our nation's new space policy. By working together we will continue to expand the economic potential of the space industry in Alabama."

The governor didn't just shoot for the stars though. He also addressed his intentions to fight tooth and nail, along with Alabama's Congressional delegation, Legislature and citizens to ensure the viability and operation of Alabama's four military bases.

"We are home to four of America's premier installations - Anniston Army Depot, Fort Rucker, Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base and Redstone Arsenal. Each is so exceptional in what they do that America cannot fight and win a war without them," the governor said.

"I will fight alongside our federal delegation and this Legislature to keep our bases open and keep these jobs here. No other state will fight harder or perform these duties better than the people of Alabama," he continued.

The governor also announced some relief for the beleaguered educational sector in Alabama.

Faced with drastic cuts last fiscal year, the governor announced an increase in spending by $87 million for textbooks, classroom supplies and teacher training.

He also announced his desire to see an expansion of the Alabama Reading Initiative.

"To ensure our children possess the most fundamental skill needed to succeed in life, I am proposing that we expand and focus the Alabama Reading Initiative to all K through 3 classrooms in the state."

With this expansion, Gov. Riley said he believes Alabama will move from the bottom five in the nation in reading, to the top five, in only five years.

To end on an optimistic note, Gov. Riley again issued a directive to the Legislature.

"We must all do the people's work. If we make reform a reality there is no limit to the greatness we can achieve," he said. "We can turn crisis into comeback."