Bentley says budget wording may be unconstitutional

Published 12:29 am Saturday, September 26, 2015

By Kim Chandler | The Associated Press

MONTGOMERY (AP) — Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley on Friday said he believes lawmakers overstepped their bounds with budget bill language dictating how state agencies should spend their state appropriation in the coming fiscal year.

The governor on Wednesday asked the Alabama Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of budget language that gave state agencies limitations as they determine how to deal with budget cuts, or at best level funding, in the newly approved budget.

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“There are provisions in the budget act that encroach on the authority of the Executive Branch to implement budget allocations within state government. I believe these provisions of the budget act are in violation of the Alabama Constitution, which expressly preserves the separation of powers in government,” Bentley said in a statement.

Bentley asked justices to review four sections of the budget act. One said lawmakers intend for the state to keep all drivers’ license offices open. Others said cuts should come from administrative functions before reducing state services and that state agencies were forbidden from buying new cars or buildings without legislative approval.

“I think the intent of the Legislature is, if we are in a true crisis situation fiscally, we shouldn’t be building buildings or buying vehicles,” Senate Finance and taxation General Fund Chairman Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said.

Orr said the Bentley administration did not object to the budget language as it was being debated.

Lawmakers last week — after seven months of deadlock and GOP infighting over tax increases — reached a budget deal that used a 25-cent-per-pack cigarette tax and a transfer of education funds to minimize cuts to state agencies.

House Ways and Means General Fund Committee Chairman Steve Clouse said that many lawmakers wanted to be able to show that, “We are not just raising money, we are cutting back too.”

The legal question has arisen periodically over just how much lawmakers can dictate to state agencies when they parcel out appropriations to agencies each year.

Clouse said lawmakers have previously issued moratoriums on purchases.

However, the directions to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency on maintaining drivers’ licenses offices and trooper posts is newer territory for budget decrees.

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency for months has warned that funding reductions could cause the closures of several license offices across the state. Clouse said legislators in rural areas said the offices that are less busy would be shuttered, leaving rural residents with long drives to get to the nearest office.

“A lot of members in rural areas were concerned about constituents being able to get to drivers’ licenses offices,” Clouse said.

The governor asked justices to provide a quick answer since the fiscal year begins Thursday, Oct. 1.