By Glynn Wilson –
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — After all the pressure from the Watchdog Press, all the hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth by every special interest group all over the state and their favorite legislators convened to get what they want — and maybe in the process help the sick and poor just a little bit — the state House and Senate finally got together on the final day of a special session called to pass a lottery bill, but did not pass a lottery bill.
Instead, a compromise that seemed to please almost no one emerged from a joint House and Senate conference committee taking money from a billion dollar BP Gulf oil spill litigation settlement disaster relief fund to pay for some roads, pay off debt — and shore up the Medicaid health care budget from catastrophic collapse.
As it came out, $120 million will now go to south Alabama coastal counties for road projects, while Medicaid, which was $85 million short this year alone, will get $120 million to over the next two years. Another $400 million will go to repay money borrowed from other state budgets to during previous funding crises.
The way it was reported by the mainstream press here, the last minute compromise broke many days of “legislative deadlock” in which lawmakers were divided “along geographic and policy lines” and came out as “a middle ground between south Alabama lawmakers who wanted money for road projects in coastal counties” actually impacted by the oil spill and those in other parts of the state, mainly Decatur, where legislators wanted the money to fix their roads too. Then there were those insisted the biggest need left by a hole in the budget from the regular session in the spring was in the state’s “cash-strapped Medicaid program.”
Amazingly, and we don’t think it would have happened if not for the pressure from the Watchdog Press that exposed the political problems of Alabama nationally, the Legislature voted to approve the bill in the House by a vote of 87-9, while the Senate approved it 22-8.
“This is possibly, at this point in time, the best that we are going to be able to do. There was compromise on all sides,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, the Republican from Anniston, was quoted as saying.
Republican Governor Robert Bentley is expected to sign the bill, after spending weeks pushing to help the Medicaid funding shortfall victims even after years of denying help for the program, beginning when he turned down $1 billion a year from the Obama administration to fully expand and fund Medicaid — simply to ensure his reelection in 2012.
Some lawmakers came away saying even with the last minute compromise, the Legislature “failed” the people, according to House Minority Leader Craig Ford, a Democrat from Gadsden. He said passage of the oil bill was “a small miracle.”
“While this special legislative session did succeed in passing the BP bill, the Legislature still failed to let the people vote on a lottery – which was the whole point of the special session in the first place,” Ford said. “I will never understand why some legislators are afraid of democracy. They trust the voters to elect them, but not to vote on whether they want a lottery or casinos. … it’s a shame that the Legislature will continue to deny the people their right to vote.”
The state is supposed to get $850 million in compensation for economic damages from the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history over time, but the Legislature is going to take $640 million up front and borrow other moneys in a bond issue to fund other projects.
Republican Steve Clouse, chairman of the House general fund budget committee, said the bill provides a temporary fix for next year’s Medicaid budget.
“I want to emphasis that temporary because we have not solved the problem in Medicaid,” Clouse said. “It is a major problem.”
The House had initially approved a bill that would have allocated $191 million to road projects in Mobile and Baldwin counties after the Senate stripped all the South Alabama money out of its bill. Local lawmakers fought to keep some money for the coast in the compromise plan and threatened to kill the Medicaid funding compromise if that was not done.
“Mobile and Baldwin counties had suffered the consequences from the BP oil spill back in 2010,” said Senator Vivian Figures, a Democrat from Mobile. “We felt it was only fair to get our fair share to take back to Mobile and Baldwin counties.”
Governor Bentley called the special session hoping to get a bill authorizing an amendment on the November 8 ballot allowing citizens to vote on a statewise lottery, which could have potentially generated $225 million a year for the General Fund with enough money to fund Medicaid. When all efforts failed to win a compromise to pass the lottery bill, the only hope left for Medicaid recipients was the oil spill settlement money.
Marsh had threatened lawmakers with the risk of getting no additional money for Medicaid if they ended the special session without approving the bill. The special session was adjourned shortly after the vote.
So now we can all breath a little easier for a couple of years more, until the next financial and political crisis hits Montgomery in the groin, when the threat of dying citizens once again falls into the fateful hands of the special interests hell bent on controlling public affairs in the state now known far and wide as Alabamaland. If it is not the laughing stock of the nation today, give it a week or two. It will be again.
But of course it’s football season now, and the Alabama Crimson Tide won an impressive landslide victory of its own in the season opener against the University of Southern California Trojans, 52-6. Nobody wants to be talking about politics during football season.
Except of course for this pesky presidential election, where Republican Donald Trump is expected to carry the state in a landslide, even with the union vote. What a country, eh?
© 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.