Thursday, June 9, 2011

Big votes on final day of Alabama Legislature

MONTGOMERY -- Both state budgets for next year and a plan to make more than 130,000 public employees pay 2.5 percent more of their paychecks for pension coverage face deciding votes today, the last day of this year's regular session of the Legislature.

Other bills that could win legislative approval today deal with abortion, the national health care law passed by Congress last year, local taxes in Jefferson County and voter ID at the polls, among many other issues.

The pension bill is key to both the proposed education budget and operating budget for non-education agencies for the 2012 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. Lawmakers passed both budgets last month, but Gov. Robert Bentley sent them back with suggested changes.

If the budgets pass as Bentley asked, killing the pension bill would force public schools and colleges to spend an extra $82 million from the state Education Trust Fund on pension coverage for employees and retirees next year, money that otherwise could be spent on salaries or other operating expenses. Killing the bill also would force non-education agencies to spend an extra $12 million from the state General Fund on pension costs next year.

Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the top-ranking state senator, said killing the plan, House Bill 414, would cause about 1,500 layoffs next year. "I don't think that's an option," he said.

The House of Representatives last week voted 51-48 for the bill. Marsh predicted the Senate today would pass it, too.

But Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, said he and others would fight the bill, which in effect would be a pay cut for public employees, since neither budget has money for cost-of-living raises next year.

Bedford said Republicans, who control the House and Senate, should have closed business income tax loopholes that could have raised as much as $200 million a year instead of raising pension costs for employees.

"Instead of closing corporate loopholes, they're trying to balance the budgets on the backs of teachers and state employees, and that's wrong," said Bedford, minority leader of the 12 Senate Democrats.

Bills that could pass the Legislature today include:

Next year's education budget. The budget and related bills would spend $5.59 billion from the Education Trust Fund, an increase of $240.7 million from this year. That increase would be dwarfed by the loss of as much as $462.5 million in federal stimulus money that supplemented trust fund spending this year but will be gone next year.

The budget would pay for 1,125 fewer teacher positions at public schools next year. Public schools in the 2010-11 academic year employed 47,573 teachers. The loss of teachers could be much greater if the pension increase bill fails.

Next year's operating budget and General Fund. The budget as changed by Bentley, plus related bills, would spend a maximum of $1.77 billion from the state General Fund, an increase of about $180 million from this year.

General Fund spending would be cut by roughly $21 million if Senate Bill 440, which would reduce the state cost of providing lawyers for indigent defendants, dies today.

Next year, $235 million in federal stimulus money that supplemented General Fund spending this year won't be available, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office, a loss greater than next year's proposed increase in General Fund money.

House Bill 60, which would let voters decide in November 2012 whether to rewrite the state constitution to say that people and employers in Alabama could opt out of the federal health care overhaul passed by Congress last year.

House Bill 18, which would ban anyone from performing an abortion on a woman pregnant for 20 weeks or more, as determined by a doctor. Exceptions would be allowed if an abortion was needed to avoid the woman's death or serious risk of substantial bodily harm.

A public health official said the bill, if it had been law, would have prevented about 68 abortions out of more than 10,000 performed last year.

House Bill 19, which with limited exceptions would require voters to show a driver's license, passport or other photo identification at the polls before voting. Currently, voters can show ID without photographs, such as a certified copy of a birth certificate.

Senate Bill 301, which in effect could impose a state ban on abortion. It says the term "persons" as used in state laws shall include "any human being from the moment of fertilization and implantation into the womb."

House Bill 650, which would give the Jefferson County Commission power to raise occupational taxes, sales taxes or other levies of its choosing to a suggested target of as much as $50 million a year.

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