Consensus between established legislative leaders and their idealistic new colleagues hasn’t come easily since the Republican sweep of 2010.
But first-term Republicans seeking a change in the way the Alabama legislature tackles the state’s most serious business are hopeful they can gain ground in reshaping operational procedure in the Senate and House, and to finally prioritize the legislative agenda from the top down.
Two weeks ahead of the start of the 2013 regular session, first-term Republican Sen. Paul Bussman (R-Cullman) said the legislative class of 2010 still has a lot of persuading to do if it wants to loosen career politicians’ perennial control of an infamously stagnant legislative calendar.
“The process is flawed; the process needs work,” said Bussman Thursday, speaking before the Cullman chapter of Rotary International. “Hopefully, over the next year or two, we can convince the leadership that we need to address the budgets sooner than we’re doing now.
The urgency of taking on the state’s growing obligation to fund Medicaid health care benefits places the General Fund budget at the top of this legislature’s to-do list, although Bussman said it will be difficult to convince key legislators to give the matter priority in the early days of the session.
“One thing I’ve started to do is to push my leadership to understand that passing the budget is, constitutionally, the only thing we have to do in the legislature. We have 30 legislative days in the regular session, and I would like to see the budgets being discussed by the 15th day.
“That should be a simple thing, but we’re running into a problem with the leadership: they don’t want to do that. They want to push things to the end, which gives people certain amounts of power they really shouldn’t have. If we get to the end of the session on 11:30 on the last night of the session and we still haven’t passed a budget, that can put senators in a position where they can take advantage of the system, because all they’ve got to do is say, ‘If I don’t get what I want, we’re not going to pass a budget, and we’ll have to come back [and do it] in special session.’”
To no one’s surprise, Bussman described this year’s General Fund as ‘extremely ugly,’ noting that support for Medicaid continues to claim an ever-increasing share of the GF’s limited revenues streams.
“Understand that the budgets for the General Fund are going to be extremely ugly,” he said. “The General Fund is slowly, but surely, being eaten up by Medicaid. If we don’t deal with Medicaid, it will just continue to consume the General Fund budget to where we don’t have any services in Alabama other than prisons and Medicaid. That’s not acceptable in Alabama.”
The idea of capping the percentage of General Fund money to be spent on Medicaid each year may see some push in the legislature, as would a slew of other bills — mostly redundant — intended to reassert the state’s Constitutional sovereign powers in the face of mounting federal mandates on health care and gun control.
“You’ll probably see us, as a legislature, start to reemphasize the state’s rights,” Bussman said. “You’ll probably start to see us passing legislation that reaffirms things that are already there in the Constitution.”
The regular session of the Alabama legislature begins Feb. 5. The Times will preview the 2013 session with more discussion from local delegates as opening day approaches.
* Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.