During the entire Regular Session of the Legislature, the general consensus was that the Governor intended to call the Legislators into a Special Session at the conclusion of the Session. Riley wisely changed his mind. He had been embarrassingly rebuked in his attempt to stop the Regular Session and intervene a Special Session inside the Regular Session. Since both state budgets passed in the Regular Session the urgency to have a Special Session has eased.

Riley is adamant that the Legislature address his long list of accountability bills. He says that’s what the people want. He is right in his reading of the Alabama electorate. During last year’s vote on the Governor’s Tax Plan voters said that they did not trust the Alabama Legislature with any new money. In fact, the 2-to-1 vote against Riley’s plan was probably more of a slap at the Legislature and their spending habits than it was at Riley. In the just completed Regular Session, the Legislature did very little to instill confidence in their stewardship. They passed budgets on education based on rosy and probably overly optimistic projections with a slush fund for their political use. The General Fund was patched together with masking tape. It is usually put together with a band-aid approach but this one is really pieced together.

The Governor not only wants to address the issue of accountability but also the rising cost of health insurance for state teacher’s and employees. Riley calls it a crisis that must be addressed. Many legislative leaders and legislative fiscal experts have disdained and disputed Riley’s “Sky is Falling and End of the World” scenario for the cost of state workers health insurance costs.

Riley’s critics say he has overstated the amount of taxes consumed by the cost of state employee health insurance. Riley and his team have made doomsday predictions that the state lawmakers have an unfunded one billion dollar shortfall that will break the state financially. The legislative experts argue that 33 percent of the state employees health insurance costs are paid for by federal, local, or special state revenues that are generally not used in crafting the state budgets. They further criticize the administration and say that they do not understand state government finances.

Riley’s former Finance Director, Drayton Nabers, was the chief recipient of the criticism. They argued that dealing with the finances of a Fortune 500 Life Insurance Company is completely different than dealing with the state budget. Nabers is the former longtime CEO of Birmingham based Protective Life.

Nabers made the health insurance cost problem the paramount issue of his year-and-a-half as Finance Director. Now that he has moved on to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court there is the possibility that the administrative crusade may lose some of its fervor.

Riley and Nabers chief opponent has been Dr. Paul Hubbert, who has beaten them easily and routinely in the legislative arena in their efforts to reduce his teachers’ benefits. In the past Regular Session, AEA was victorious in defeating Governor Riley’s proposal to increase the out-of-pocket medical expenses for state education workers. Dr. Hubbert successfully argued that raising his teachers’ out-of-pocket cost would in essence give them a salary decrease. State General Fund employees won the same concession.

Hubbert echoes the same argument that the state fiscal experts say. He says, “There’s no question that health insurance costs are expanding, but to say that the state is liable for all of the costs is really a gross overstatement.”

Marc Reynolds, who oversees the state health insurance board for school employees, said, “It’s not all state tax dollars. It’s a logical conclusion for people to make but it’s not correct.”

A Riley task force is studying the healthcare cost problem. Retirement Systems head, Dr. David Bronner, agrees with his deputy Reynolds and with Dr. Hubbert. Bronner said,”It will take a Houdini-like magic act for the task force to agree on changes that would significantly reduce state government’s healthcare spending on public employees which this year will exceed 800 million.”

Bronner said,”Unions won’t like two of three possible options, trimming benefits and making employees pay more for them, and he said the taxpayers won’t like the third – making the state government keep paying more and more money.” “There are only 49 other states trying to figure this same thing out.” “It’s a tough one.”

Riley most likely will call a Special Session to address these health insurance cost issues, probably after his task force has met and reported later this year.