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March 19, 2004   Email to Friend 

Debra Davis
(334) 613-4686
March 19, 2004

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - While most legislators have spoken in favor of reforming state government, House committee votes Wednesday indicate many of them are more interested in raising taxes than raising their level of accountability.

The House Education Finance and Appropriations Committee, chaired by Rep. Richard Lindsey, D-Centre, voted to carry the bills over, meaning the reform measures aren't likely to come up again during the session.

Wednesday afternoon the House General Fund and Appropriations Committee took a similar route, failing to pass out a single bill dealing with reform of state government.

Most committee members were more interested in talking about ways to raise money to spend than conserving what they already receive from taxpayers.

Among the reform bills considered by committees on Wednesday were measures that would have strengthened accounting standards for all agencies and state departments that receive state funding; would have extended retirement requirements for state employees and teachers; would have created the Alabama Health Insurance Board to consolidate the health systems for state employees and teachers; and would create a rainy day fund for the state's Education Trust Fund.

Jimmy Baker, representing the Foundation for Education and Economic Development (FEED), told members of the House Education Finance and Appropriations Committee that the Legislature had been addressing the state's financial needs in a "crisis mode" for too many years. He said the reform measures submitted by FEED would help restore the public's trust in government. "The public is not particularly concerned about increasing revenue unless they are comfortable that reform has occurred," Baker said. "I have had legislators tell me they know what they need to do, but they say they can't take the pressure."

Some of that same pressure was evident during the hearing as Dr. Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, testified against the reform bills. Hubbert gained additional support in his opposition to the bills from Mac McArthur, executive director of the Alabama State Employees Association, and Mark Reynolds, assistant director of the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

"It's barely been six months since the voters of Alabama rejected a gigantic tax increase proposal, but many Legislators only want to talk about raising taxes," said Federation Director of Governmental Affairs Freddie Patterson. "Our reform package included proposals to control the excessive costs of health care benefits and bonus retirement provisions for state employees and changes the way the Legislature budgets its money. There was no desire to move in that direction in the hearings Wednesday."

Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, serves as vice chair of the House Education Finance and Appropriations Committee and told fellow committee members that the proposals before them weren't the answer.

"You can come up with all the formulas in the world," he said. "You can call it anything you want to call it. But the only way you can solve the problem is to find more money."

Rogers went on to call portions of the plans "hogwash" adding that he believes an increase in property taxes would go far in solving the state's financial worries. "The only thing that's going to solve it is to levelize taxes," he said. "Until we raise more money, this is not worth the paper it's written on. You're trying to do an end run around raising property taxes."

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