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Article published Jul 19, 2005

Legislature begins special session on General Fund budget

Associated press Writer

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - The Alabama Legislature, which returned for Tuesday night's special session opening, got a General Fund budget proposal from the governor that closely resembles the budget that died in the last session.

Legislative leaders said that's good because other issues were primarily responsible for killing the $1.5 billion budget in May.

"The breakdown was not about the budget. It was about issues that preceded the budget," Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley said Tuesday.

The Legislature wrapped up its regular session May 16 with the Senate failing to address a General Fund budget that the House had approved in April. The Senate's inaction required Gov. Bob Riley to call a special session to address a budget that's necessary to keep state programs like prisons, state troopers and Medicaid operating when the state's new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Riley did not address the Legislature's opening night, but he sent the lawmakers a proposed budget that closely resembled the one approved by the House. Riley's communications director, Jeff Emerson, said there was no effort to fund any of the programs with education tax dollars, which was a major issue in the regular session, and the governor made only minor changes from the budget that passed the House in the regular session.

Senate President Pro Tem Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, said Riley had done a good job of getting input from legislators before the session, and he foresees no major problems for the General Fund budget.

The chairman of the House budget committee, Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, agreed.

Knight said he's heard some people say there's more money available for the budget than during the regular session because of an upturn in state tax collections. But Knight said he wants to pass a budget based on the same revenue projections used during the regular session.

"I would caution that if revenue is up this month it may be down next month. I would be very reluctant to project more revenue," he said.

Riley's agenda for the special session includes 13 bills besides the budget. They cover a range of issues, such as restricting the use of eminent domain to obtain private land, providing a 4 percent raise for active and retired state employees, enacting tougher sentences for some sex offenders, and closing loopholes that allow some businesses to pay less unemployment taxes.

Riley's eminent domain bill, which is in reaction to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month, would prohibit city and county governments from taking private property for commercial, retail, office or residential development.

Barron said that bill will generate more debate than any other in the special session. He said there is widespread support for prohibiting the use of eminent domain for retail development.

"We've got to be very careful that we don't allow cities or counties to begin condemning gradmother's house on the corner to put in a McDonald's or Wal-Mart," he said.

But he said a ban on eminent domain for commercial development worries some legislators who fear one reluctant landowner could keep Alabama from landing a big industrial plant.

Emerson said Riley was comfortable including commercial projects because none of Alabama's big new industries in recent years, including the car plants, had to rely on eminent domain to get land.

Riley and legislative leaders are trying to keep the special session to five meeting days, which is the minimum time necessary for enacting legislation. Baxley, a candidate for governor next year, said that plan could be hampered by Riley's long agenda and plans by some legislators and lobbying groups to offer their own version of the eminent domain bill.

"The mere fact you've got three or four different versions of one bill sets up, at the very best, lots of discussion," she said.

Committees will begin considering the governor's bills on Wednesday and, if the Legislature follows his timetable, the bills will be up for votes in the House and Senate on Thursday.

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