Dems consider shutting off debate on roads bill
A powerful state senator said he and his Democratic colleagues will consider shutting off debate on Thursday on a bill that would use $1 billion over 10 years to improve roads and bridges.
Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, said they might stop debate and try to move forward with a vote if they do not believe the Republicans are serious about moving forward on Thursday.
The Senate has debated the bill for three business days, much of it slowdown tactics by Republicans, and is expected to continue debate on Thursday.
If the Legislature passes the bill, people would vote on whether they wanted the program in November and the work could begin in 2011.
Republicans have concerns about taking $100 million a year for 10 years from the Alabama Trust Fund, royalties the state receives from oil and gas. Some of the money is used for the General Fund budget.
"I just don't think now is the time to jeopardize the trust fund or the savings account of the state of Alabama," said Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston.
Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, said it makes sense to leave the money and live off of the interest. If money is pulled out, he said there are millions and millions of dollars in interest the state will never see.
Sen. Larry Means, D-Attalla, plans to introduce an amendment that would place a floor at $2 billion, which would automatically halt the program if it reached that level and keep it parked until the principal climbed back above $2 billion again.
Sen. Ben Brooks, R-Mobile, believes the floor should be at least $2.5 billion and took up much of Tuesday afternoon discussing his proposal.
Barron, chairman of the committee that decides which bills come to the Senate floor for debate, thought they might vote on Tuesday. He said he had concerns about voting cloture, or shutting down debate, because it often creates hard feelings, which he did not want so early in the session. Barron, the Senate sponsor of the bill, said they have the 21 votes necessary to pass the bill in the Senate and he expects at least 25 votes. The House sponsor of the bill is Rep. Billy Beasley, D-Clayton.
Barron, Beasley, and about a dozen other senators joined road builders for a Tuesday press conference between the State House and large equipment the builders parked along South Union Street.
They called on Republicans to stop delaying.
Beasley said the work would make Alabama roads and bridges safer.
Barron said the bill is more important now with unemployment at 11 percent. He said about as many people are underemployed.
Lee Gross of Ozark Striping Company, which he said has 125 employees, said the unemployment rate in the construction industry is 18 percent.
State Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, said people could already be working if Republicans did not kill the bill a year ago.
Beasley and Barron said the bill would create 30,000 jobs, a number Republicans have disputed.
Supporters of the bill said the job creation information is from the Federal Highway Administration.
Marsh said that would equate to workers making less than $2 an hour.
State Sen. Larry Dixon, R-Montgomery, said the trust fund should be "sacrosanct" and the principal of the money should not be touched because revenues are is used for corrections, public health, and public safety.
"When you're having trouble funding government, you deplete one of the major sources by depleting the trust fund," he said.
Dixon is concerned that the money will be discretionary and handed out to friends of Democrats. The senator said the bill is the "biggest pork project ever."
He said there is language to diminish some of that discretion, but that projects will be line-itemed in the General Fund.
The appropriation, according to the bill, "may be made in either the general appropriation act or a separate appropriations act." Dixon believes that puts the discretion in the hands of the General Fund budget committee.
"No committee in the Legislature ought to have that discretionary money," he said.
While the money will be directed to projects in cities, counties and congressional districts, Dixon said no language in the legislation states that the money will be turned over to local governments.
Barron said there is not language that would make the money discretionary. He said most of it would go to the Alabama Department of Transportation or to local governments that would spend it.
"They make decisions on how that is spent," Barron said.
Seventy-five percent of the money would go to the Alabama Department of Transportation and 25 percent would go to cities and counties.
Barron and Bedford criticized proposals by some Republicans, one by Marsh and one by gubernatorial candidate Tim James, that would allow counties to increase their gas tax and that would use bonds to fund construction, respectively.
They called those terrible ideas that either increases taxes or increased the state's debt.
-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen