The move, prefiled as a bill for next year’s Senate session, comes as the House and Senate are down to their last $162,000 in operating funds with more than a month left in the fiscal year.
“We need to learn to live within our means,” said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, the bill’s sponsor.
Nineteen legislators — more than half the Senate — have signed on as co-sponsors of Orr’s bill, which would end a decades-old budgeting practice known as “evergreen appropriations.” The practice allows the administrators of the House and Senate to demand $500,000 in emergency funds from state coffers when Statehouse operating funds run low.
The Legislature hasn’t invoked the “evergreen appropriations” clause since 1991, but it is likely to do so in the next few days. Secretary of the Senate Pat Harris said Friday that a letter to state Finance Director Marquita Davis requesting the $500,000 was on his desk, and will be sent when funds drop close to the threshold. By today, Harris said, he expects the Statehouse to be down to its last $162,000.
Both the House and the Senate have been implementing austerity measures since June, when House Clerk Greg Pappas notified Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, that the Legislature wouldn’t have enough money with which to operate through the end of the year. Consequently, legislators and staff have cut out travel and cut back on use of office supplies.
Pappas and Harris say the problem is proration, the mid-year budget cut that trimmed 10 percent from all state agencies, including the Statehouse. After proration, the Legislature had $19.6 million to run its administrative functions for the year, about $2 million less than administrators were expecting.
As of Friday, according to the state’s online checkbook, the Legislature has spent $19.7 million, about $100,000 more than was in the prorated budget.
Harris said the Legislature was able to function, in part, because of a transfer of funds from the Examiners of Public Accounts — another agency within the legislative branch. He said he’d also laid off three employees in recent weeks.
“It’s hard when you bring in somebody that’s at the middle or low end of the ladder, someone living paycheck to paycheck, and tell them they have to go,” Harris said.
Orr said the responsibility for keeping the statehouse running lies with the administrators. He said all state agencies have had to adjust to proration, and the Legislature should be able to do the same.
“It’s completely unacceptable that other agencies are asked to absorb the cuts from proration while the Legislature can ask for a cash infusion,” Orr said.
Salaries make up the bulk of the Legislature’s expenses. The House alone pays around $800,000 per month in salaries, with lawmakers’ pay making up more than half that money.
House Clerk Pappas, who retires later this year, made $199,155 in pay and travel reimbursements in 2011.
Harris made $182,926 over the same period. And lawmakers’ pay jumped sharply several years ago, when both houses voted in a 62 percent hike in legislators’ pay.
Some lawmakers have turned down the pay raise. State records show Orr receiving only travel pay in 2008 and 2009, then accepting $52,000 per year — the full salary, including pay raise — in 2010 and 2011.
Orr said the cost of representing a faraway district — Decatur is about 170 miles from Montgomery — had begun to mount.
“There’s the cost of hotels, the cost of gas,” he said. “It doesn’t cost as much if you live in someplace close like Autauga County.”
Orr said that since proration was enacted this year, he’s given himself a pay cut, and state records show him getting about $500 less per month in 2012.
Attempts to reach Rebekah Mason, spokeswoman for both the finance director and the governor, were not successful Friday. Both Harris and Orr said they believed current law would require Davis to come up with $500,000 if the Legislature requests it.
Nothing is going to change quickly however: Orr’s bill isn’t even scheduled for a reading until February 2013.