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Legislators should listen to Speaker, not governor

The Alabama Legislature convened for its 2010 legislative session last week with two major influencers lurking in the background: a tough budget year and impending elections.

We hope the latter won’t be the impetus for bad decisions about the former.

The legislature’s biggest job in any year is to craft and pass budgets for the following year.

“Woefully short” were the words House Speaker Seth Hammett (D-Andalusia) used to describe the budget situation before the session started.

The state 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 1 percent less than current funding, which is already prorated by 7.5 percent.

But Gov. Bob Riley, who is serving his final year as governor, delivered a conflicting message to the legislature and a television audience during the state of the state address last Tuesday. Riley outlined his budget proposal as one that provides state agencies with level funding and education with a $400 million increase.

The bad news is that he is counting on the more than $1 billion he expects Alabama to get if Congress passes another stimulus plan.

One of the state’s news agencies attributed this response to Speaker Hammett: “The governor has written a check he can’t cash.”

It would be foolish, the speaker said, to move forward with a budget of that magnitude not knowing what Congress will do. He added that this is the worst budget crisis he has seen in 32 years in the legislature.

We like the Speaker’s measured approach to doing business and hope those who serve with him in the legislature will be guided by his principles and not by their need to be reelected.

It would be easy to pass an unrealistic budget based on the hope of federal aid in order to keep constituents happy in an election year, to put off until tomorrow the tough decisions ahead. But it wouldn’t be the right thing to do.

Federal stimulus dollars saved state budgets last year, but even those budgets are being prorated. We can’t afford for our legislators to not address the problem.

To do that, they will have to find ways to reign in state spending. Perhaps they will even have to consider new revenue streams. Those decisions may not be popular; they may not garner votes in June or November. But we elected our officials to make decisions, not to run for re-election.