Alabama governor sets big agenda for final year: Stop gambling, balance budgets, enact ethics

By Phillip Rawls, AP
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Alabama governor sets big agenda for final year

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama’s lame-duck governor laid out a lengthy agenda Tuesday night for his final year in office, including stopping gambling, legalizing charter schools, and writing lean budgets that won’t saddle his successor with spending cuts.

“Let us tackle the big issues with bold ideas so we can make Alabama the state to which the future belongs,” Gov. Bob Riley said in his final State of the State address to the Legislature.

Fiscal experts have forecast big drops in tax revenue for the budgets the Legislature must write for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. But Riley said he will use federal stimulus money and other anticipated federal funding to recommend an education budget that increases spending for schools by $400 million, or nearly 8 percent, and that avoid cuts to non-education programs in the General Fund budget.

“Now that does not sound like we have a crisis. But it does sound like we have a great opportunity,” he said in his prepared text.

Those budgets will be in effect when Riley leaves office next January. They are a legacy issue for a governor who entered office in 2003 with Alabama facing its largest budget deficit since the Depression.

Legislators are anxious to get Riley’s budget plans in a few days and figure out how he intends to accomplish his promise despite what others say are frightening prospects for steep budget cuts.

“I’ve been here 32 years and this is the worst budget crisis I have seen,” retiring House Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, said.

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Lowell Barron said Riley is relying on “funny money” from federal jobs legislation that hasn’t passed yet, and legislators will have to watch what happens in Washington to see if his numbers work.

Several Democratic legislators said Tuesday they will try to tax, regulate and expand electronic bingo casinos as a way to raise at least $200 million annually for the state budgets.

House budget committee Chairman Richard Lindsey, D-Centre, said it will be hard for the legislation to pass because gambling interests are not united on it, but the state should start taxing casinos.

Riley has been trying to shut down some casinos he says are incorrectly labeling illegal slot machines as bingo. He stepped up his attack Tuesday night by using much of his speech to criticize efforts to expand gambling, calling it “the biggest hustle in Alabama history.”

Riley said gambling increases crime, and he challenged legislators to recall Alabama in the early 1950s, when illegal gambling controlled Phenix City, Ala., until a nominee for attorney general was assassinated after running on a cleanup platform.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you vote to let this happen, you’ll be swimming in a pool that has more sharks than all the oceans in the world,” Riley said.

Most in Riley’s audience responded with a standing ovation, started by first lady Patsy Riley on the front row. But Houston County Commission Chairman Mark Culver, a proponent of the new Country Crossing gambling and entertainment complex at Dothan, sat quietly on the third row. He said Houston County residents are offended by Riley’s repeated comparisons to Phenix City.

“Even people who aren’t for the project are in an uproar,” Culver said.

Riley challenged legislators to legalize charter schools. Alabama is one of 11 states without the schools, which are public institutions that operate free of many regulations on traditional public schools. Riley said the federal government is using charter schools as one criteria in awarding some education funds, and legalizing them will help Alabama qualify for $200 million.

Riley, a University of Alabama graduate, used a football coach’s analogy to explain Alabama’s field position in the competition for federal education funds.

“Would it be fair if Alabama had to get 12 yards to make a first down and Texas only had to get 10? Of course not. Yet because we do not have charter schools, that’s exactly the position we’re in,” he said.

State Rep. John Robinson, D-Scottsboro, said he enjoyed Riley’s football analogy, but charter schools would not be a winner for Alabama education because they would use already limited revenue.

“I didn’t hear a Saban solution by our coach — coach Riley,” he said.

State Superintendent of Education Joe Morton disagreed and said he expects the State Board of Education to endorse charter schools Thursday.

The Republican governor’s final legislative package also includes ethics bills that have failed year after year in the Democrat-controlled Legislature. They feature new limits on gifts to public officials, subpoena power for the State Ethics Commission, and a ban on hiding campaign contributions by shuffling them among political action committees.

“I ask my friends in the majority to stop making excuses, stop playing political games, and let these reforms come up for a vote,” he said.

Barron said any ethics package must include a ban on state contracts issued by the governor and other state officials without taking bids, but that was not part of Riley’s package.

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