State legislature almost ready to resume

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Selma Times-Journal

Education and roads have topped the legislative topic lists lately in budget discussions in these last few days before the Alabama Legislature meets.

Top the needs of the state with a nationwide economic slowdown and anticipated budget cuts, and the agenda for the Legislature seems set.

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The Legislature convenes its regular 2008 session at noon Tuesday. The session will last about 3 1/2 months with the chief focus on passing budgets for education and state services.

The question remains: Will Gov. Bob Riley get his tax agenda through the House and the Senate?

Already Riley wants to give tax breaks to families and for small businesses that provide health insurance for their employees. This is the second year that the governor has proposed raising personal exemptions, dependent exemptions and standard deductions on state income tax.

The governor wants to allow small businesses with less than 25 employees to deduct twice what they pay for workers’ health insurance. Those employees making $50,000 or less could also deduct on their personal income tax twice of what they pay for health insurance.

On Thursday the governor used a conference call with volunteer leaders of the Business Council of Alabama and the Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama to ask for help in spreading the word about the plan.

“The people of Alabama need this right now. I want an economic growth plan for this state, and this is a part of it,” Riley said during the call.

The Business Council of Alabama is behind this initiative. The council’s president and CEO, William J. Canary, said his organization will initiate “Project House Call” to work with local chambers of commerce across the state to alert lawmakers to support the bill.

The Associated Press surveyed members of the Legislature about the governor’s proposal for small businesses. In the House, 64 percent supported Riley, 25 percent said they were undecided and 11 percent were opposed.

In the Senate, The Associated Press reported that 52 percent favored Riley’s small business proposal, 38 percent didn’t know and 10 percent were in opposition.

The AP survey included 72 percent of the representatives and 83 percent of the senators.

Both of Riley’s tax bills died in the House education budget committee last year.

Chiefly, that’s because both the individual proposal and the small business proposal would cut into public education funding, totaling about $200 million each year once the five-year phase-in is completed.

Some legislators, including Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, have concerns about the need for more education dollars in the face of the tax cuts. In January, Joyce Bigbee, director of the Legislative Fiscal Office, estimated that the Education Trust Fund would have $573.9 million or 8.5 percent less money available to spend in 2009.

Sanders is chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation-Education Committee. He has already called for reviewing another month’s tax collections before drafting the 2009 education budget. And he’s taking the same approach toward the governor’s tax proposals.

“I would be glad to vote for both of those tax measures provided they would be implemented when our children’s education would not be adversely impacted,” Sanders told The Associated Press.