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Special legislative sessions to cut budget are costing states

Expense adds up when calling lawmakers back

By Greg Bluestein
Associated Press / July 25, 2009

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States are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on special legislative sessions whose chief purpose is to trim more funding from their eroding budgets.

Analysts expect the number of special sessions, usually a rarity in many states, to soar as governors are left with little choice but to herd lawmakers back to state houses to balance the books.

“The problem that many states are having now is that they haven’t faced extremes like this before,’’ said Brenda Erickson, a senior research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “And in many cases they don’t have any options. They have to do it.’’

At least 14 states - Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, New York, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia - have already called legislators back for another round of work. Special sessions are also a possibility in Georgia, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Utah.

“They’re in the hardest spot they can practically be in,’’ Erickson said of governors facing budget woes. “And they’re stuck: They took an oath to uphold the state constitution, and the constitution requires them to come back in and fix it.’’

The need for extra lawmaking is a familiar trend during troubled economic times. But the special sessions pose a dilemma for many state executives: It often costs tens of thousands of dollars a day to corral legislators back, an unappealing prospect that many state executives say can’t avoid.

“There is still much to be done,’’ Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois said in June when he called lawmakers back to Springfield to hash out a state budget. “We must find a way to work together and solve the greatest financial calamity our state has ever confronted.’’

Still, governors run the prospect of opening political rifts when they call lawmakers back.

Mississippi House Speaker Billy McCoy has decried special sessions as a “terrible waste of manpower and money’’ for a series of sessions that have cost the state about $390,000 since legislators broke camp in April.

The tab could keep rising after Governor Haley Barbour, a Republican, called legislators to return this month for a one-day special session to fund two utility regulators left out of the state budget. That’s prompted McCoy to blame the governor for prolonging the pain.

“When you have a governor who wants to have his way on every dot and piddle . . . it creates for a bad situation,’’ said McCoy, a worm farmer from northeastern Mississippi.

A handful of the special sessions aren’t linked to the budget crisis, such as Governor David Paterson of New York calling for the Senate to return to resolve a leadership struggle that has paralyzed the chamber for weeks.

But most are devoted to hammering out spending plans and slashing funding to cope with fast-falling revenues.

Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona, for one, has called two special sessions this year so lawmakers can fine-tune the state’s spending plan. She ordered the latest, which began this week, after she used her veto pen to slash key parts of the budget package approved by the legislature.

Illinois legislators returned to the statehouse this month after Quinn vetoed a bare-bones budget. And Texas lawmakers were called back to Austin this week to keep five state agencies running.

Special sessions are not as rare in states like Texas. Governor Rick Perry has issued the call eight times since he took office in December 2000.

But they are more of a novelty in states like Indiana, where Governor Mitch Daniels called the state’s first special session since 2002 to grapple with a funding shortfall. Lawmakers passed a two-year state budget at the end of the month to avert a government shutdown.

“The Legislature, I’m sorry to say, was behaving as if nothing was different. But everything was different,’’ Daniels said in May, explaining the decision to call lawmakers back.

Special sessions to tackle budget issues are also a possibility in Nebraska and in Georgia, a state where governors typically go to great lengths to avoid calling legislators back.

For now, at least, it seems as though Georgia has staved off a special session by slashing the budget and asking teachers to take three furlough days.