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Session begins today

When the Alabama Legislature convenes at noon today to open its 2009 session, all eyes will be on Washington.

The legislature has 105 calendar days – or until May 19 – to complete the tasks before it. Chief among those is the passage of education and general fund budgets, both of which will have to be cut from current funding levels unless the stimulus package currently before Congress contains significant dollars for the state.

“The stimulus package is a critical element in addressing Alabama’s budget needs,” Speaker of the House Seth Hammett (D-Andalusia) said. “As passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, the stimulus plan would increase by about $800 million the amount Alabama receives as a federal match for Medicaid. That, of course, would free up money to help the General Fund. For the Education Trust Fund budget, the stimulus plan would bring in about $586 million for K-12, postsecondary, and colleges.”

Hammett said that money could save jobs and important education programs.

“There are other important elements of the stimulus plan, but these two would have a significant impact on our budgeting for the 2010 fiscal year,” Hammett said.

Sen. Jimmy Holley (R-Elba), who represents Covington County, said there will be budgets introduced, but basically the legislature will be in a holding patter.

“We have committees meeting and developing budgets,” Holley said. “But you won’t see them moving until we know more. Right now, we don’t know the impact of the stimulus package.

“Based on what we can surmise, I believe the U.S. Senate is causing a revisit of the package and changing it to more of a work/jobs bill,” Holley said. “Right now, it’s more pork than substance.”

Sen. Holley said he’d like to see a stimulus package that will “leave residue” in the form of jobs. Where Congress can help the state most is in transportation, he said.

“We’ve got an aging infrastructure,” he said. “Allocating transportation money would not only improve that, but also stimulate the economy with jobs.”

In the education sector, he said, money for new roofs and other repairs to schools, school buses and new technology could do the same thing.

Hammett said an energy package will be very high on the House agenda.

“Obviously, the energy package is a priority because of our need to become less dependent upon foreign oil,” Hammett said. “We hope to create an energy research and development program in Alabama and enact laws to encourage fuel efficiency in state buildings and vehicles. It’s a positive first step toward more energy independence.”

Another House priority will be phasing out the state’s sales tax on food, he said.

“This one measure can be a tremendous help to Alabama’s working families who struggle to provide the basic necessities,” Hammett said.