ATLANTA -- Alabama's Legislature, convening for a second try at putting together a budget, has run up against a new obstacle: Gov. Guy Hunt's call for a higher cigarette tax.
The two-term Republican forced this week's special session by vetoing the first budget the lawmakers had passed for fiscal 1992. He said he wanted more spending on criminal justice and mental health.
The higher cigarette levy is supposed to pay for those needs, but the opposition has not forgotten that Gov. Hunt opposed new taxes all through the regular session.
"The feeling of many Democratic legislators is that Gov. Hunt railed against taxes earlier this summer and now he wants us to bail him out," said one legislative aide, who declined to be identified. "I don't think they are going to go for it."
The increase -- one of 8 cents a pack, bringing the levy to 24.5 cents -- would bring the general fund budget to $831 million, from $806 million.
The governor says the increase is crucial for the upcoming fiscal year. "Unless we pass a General Fund budget in special session, there will be no way to operate the state government beginning October first," he warned in a speech Monday.
"And unless we pass a better budget than was approved during the regular session," he continued, "prisoners will be released from their cells early, state troopers will be pulled off highways, and mental health centers will close."
Lawmakers plan to defy the governor by passing a budget in the $810 million to $815 million range, the legislative aide said, adding that the House could present its version today and the Senate by the end of the week.
The aide said lawmakers are counting on the state law that requires the governor to act on any budget bills within 10 days. Quick passage would allow the Legislature a chance to convene and override any veto before Oct. 1.
Adding to lawmakers' discontent, he said, is the likelihood that Gov. Hunt will call another special session this year, this one to consider raising gasoline taxes for a 20-year, $5 billion road-building program killed earlier.
On Aug. 8, Gov. Hunt took the unprecedented step in Alabama of vetoing the state's $806 million general fund budget, passed earlier that month, saying he wished to spur lawmakers to restore funding for prisons, law enforcement, mental health, and emergency management.
In requesting a revised 1992 budget, Gov. Hunt asked that spending be increased by: $9.5 million for the Department of Corrections, $7 million for the Department of Mental Health, $5 million for the Department of Public Safety, $4 million for the Forestry Commission, and $500,000 for the governor's contingency fund.
He also asked for trims -- $5 million less for the Department of Human Resources and $3 million less for the Department of Publi Health -- and sought the transfer of about $6 million from a special fund for abandoned property to the state's general fund.
According to Charlie Rowe, the state's budget officer, the tobacco tax will raise $25 million. Last week, Alabama budget officials had estimated that it would raise $40 million.
The governor has taken a concilatory stance with lawmakers.
"I could have crisscrossed the state of Alabama, gone into the leadership districts, and bashed away at many of you before your own people if I had wanted to blame this budget mess on someone," he said Monday. "But I haven't done that. We come together in this special session for a common purpose -- to pass a state operating budget that will fund the vital services of government.'