MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Another election getting near. Another huge construction plan in the Alabama Legislature. Lawmakers whose seats are up for election this year are carrying on a political tradition by considering a proposal to spend $1 billion on roads and bridges.
The plan, sponsored by Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, was debated in the Senate on Tuesday and Thursday. It will be back up for debate next week, when Barron is optimistic he will get enough votes to pass it.
Building plans traditionally gain momentum when an election nears because politicians equate construction projects with votes.
About a year before standing for election in 1986, Alabama legislators authorized a $310 million building program for schools.
In 1998, another election year, lawmakers approved a record $580 million building program for schools and $110 million for renovating state parks. Both plans were the largest ever enacted for those purposes.
In 2006, when many legislators and Gov. Bob Riley were seeking re-election, Riley proposed a $500 million building program for schools. The Republican governor couldn't get enough Democratic votes to pass his plan before the election, but shortly after Riley won re-election, the governor and Democratic legislators came together to pass an even bigger school plan totaling $1 billion.
Now, with another election approaching, Barron's $1 billion plan would fund projects in all 67 counties. He would do it by taking $100 million per year for 10 years out of a state savings account called the Alabama Trust Fund.
The dean of the Senate, Sen. Bobby Denton, D-Muscle Shoals, said it's only natural for building projects to come up at election time because politicians are spending lots of time talking to voters about their desires, and better roads and schools are usually high on their lists.
"It's kind of a no-brainer," he said.
Barron's bill is twice the size of the $513.7 million that Alabama received from the federal stimulus package for roads. Another stimulus package, the "Jobs for Main Street Act," has passed the U.S. House and is awaiting Senate action. It would provide another $500 million for Alabama roads.
Barron's bill would get $1 billion from the $2.5 billion Alabama Trust Fund. The trust fund was built over three decades with money from natural gas wells drilled in state-owned waters along the Alabama coast.
If the Senate passes Barron's bill, it will still need to win approval in the House and then be approved by Alabama voters on the general election ballot on Nov. 2.
Barron's bill has been endorsed by the Senate Democratic Caucus and the Alabama Road Builders Association.
Opposition is coming primarily from Republicans, who hope to use the November election to end more than a century of Democratic control in Alabama's Legislature.
Barron said the GOP opposition "appears 100 percent political."
Republican Sen. Trip Pittman of Fairhope said the politics comes from Barron. He said the Senate leader is using the bill to divide Republican legislators and their friends in the Road Builders Association and to help get road builders to donate to Democratic candidates in November. Republicans also are wary of raiding the trust fund.
Alabama's Republican governor, who is not seeking re-election, said he likes Barron's concept, but safeguards are needed to make sure legislators don't dictate which roads and bridges get built.
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