Special sessions on budgets costing states big

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

Analysts expect the number of special sessions, a rarity in many states, to soar as governors are left with little choice but to herd lawmakers back to statehouses to shed combined billions from the states’ budgets.

“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 in fiscally strapped states. “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,” Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn 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.” Since early April, Mississippi has spent $390,000 to extend the regular session and hold a series of special sessions.

Gov. Haley Barbour called legislators to return earlier this month for a one-day special session to fund two utility regulators left out of the state budget. That 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. “It frustrates all of us.”

A handful of the special sessions aren’t linked to the budget crisis, such as New York Gov. David Paterson’s calls for the Senate to return to resolve a leadership struggle and Virginia’s session next month to change state law to conform to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on cross-examination rules.

Special sessions also aren’t that rare in places such as Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry has ordered eight special sessions since taking office in December 2000. He called lawmakers back to Austin in June to finish work involving five state agencies.

But most states that have called special sessions are devoted to hammering out spending plans and slashing funding to cope with fast-falling revenues.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, 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 Gov. Quinn vetoed a bare-bones budget.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels called the state’s first special session since 2002 to grapple with a funding shortfall. Lawmakers since 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. “There was no restraint on spending.”

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 to the Capitol.

Georgia’s last special session was held in 2005, but one seemed imminent two years later — until Gov. Sonny Perdue took the highly unusual move of rejecting a $142 million property tax refund to right the state’s budget woes.

For now, at least, it seems like Georgia has staved off a special session by slashing more funding from the budget and asking teachers to take three furlough days. But the governor said that he may have to consider other fixes if the economy doesn’t rebound.

“That’s not to say we won’t have to go deeper,” he said this week. “This train is not going to go down forever, and predicting when it’s going to reach the bottom of the hill is not an exact science.”

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Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.

Greg Bluestein/The Associated Press