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Interview: Sen. J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner

By Susan Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Senator J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner is a Birmingham native who is the current Majority Leader of the Senate. He is also Chairman of the Senate Rules, Confirmations and Local Legislation No. 2 Committees.

We spoke with Senator J.T “Jabo” Waggoner about his experience as a legislator and hopes for this legislative session.

APR: I wanted to talk to you about your experience as a senator in the state of Legislature, would you share with me some of the milestones you have been a part of here. For instance, when they are talking about the texting bill and you say, “I was here for seat belt laws. I was here for child restraints. I understand this, I know what I am talking about here.”

What are some of your proud moments of legislation that you have been involved in over the years? And now as the senior senator, your thoughts on that.

WAGGONER: I was first elected in 1966, when I was 29 years old. I stayed in the House for 17 years up until, I guess, ’83-’84.

The makeup of the legislature back in 1967 was all male, all white and all Democrat. I have seen a total transition from the way it was in those days to the way it is in 2012. We have a membership in the House and Senate that is really indicative of the population of Alabama. We have African-Americans, we have females, we have males, we have Republicans, we have Democrats, and that is the makeup of Alabama.

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I have been in the Senate since 1990, 22 years, and I have always been in the minority until 2010. When I first got elected, there were very few Republicans in the Senate in the early 90s but through the years our membership has grown and grown and we are now what is called a “Super Majority,” (when I say ‘we’ I am talking about the Republicans).

My colleagues in 2011 elected me as Majority Leader of the Alabama Senate. I have had honors and plaques and very nice things done for me through the years but I think that day in January of 2011, when my 21 Republican colleagues elected me as majority leader was my finest moment during my political career.

I was also named Chairman of the Confirmation Committee and I am Chairman of  the Jefferson County Senate Delegation. Last year, in addition to those assignments, I am now Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. That committee sets the agenda for every legislative day. It is a very important role. My responsibilities have just about doubled since I’ve been Chairman of the Rules Committee but it goes with the territory.

I have passed hundreds of bills during my career. I have sponsored many, many bills. I’ve co-sponsored a lot of bills.

The one that is my pet bill this year is to make illegal texting while driving. I was in the legislature when we passed the seat belt law and, of course, there was a lot of opposition. There were people saying, “Government should not be telling us that we have to wear a seat belt.” Well, it took several years to convince a majority of the Legislature that it is all about saving lives. So, finally the seat belt law passed and there is no telling, through the years, how many lives that bill has saved.

Then a few years later, we passed a bill that required infants and children up to a certain age to be put in what is called ‘a child restraint mechanism.’ It is a car seat, is what it is. And, of course, we heard the same arguments as we did on the seat belt law that government should tell me I have to put my child in one of these car seats. Well, we finally passed that.

Well, here comes texting. Law enforcement personnel will tell you that it is very, very dangerous that while driving you are taking your eyes off of the road and you are texting a message to a friend or someone in your family. It has been introduced [to the Legislature] two or three years. It passes the House and gets tied up in the Senate and has failed to pass. We are hearing the same arguments. That it is “racial profiling” and “government shouldn’t be telling me that I can’t be texting while I drive if I want to. That is government interference.”

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But there is no telling how many accidents have happened through the years since we have had cell phones and the ability to text. Eventually, and hopefully this session, we will pass the texting bill. So that is just one of the bills that I am very interested in.

To look back over my career, I would say the most important bills, the ones that meant more to me personally is a bill that I sponsored several years ago. It was for children with problems. We called it the “Early Intervention Bill.”

It is where you take children at an early age and you have several departments of state government that get involved in the early intervention of these special-needs children.

That bill does not effect a wide array of Alabama citizens but the people that take advantage of it, it means a lot to those people.

APR: How does it help them exactly?

WAGGONER: Well, there are several departments that go together: The Department of Education, the Mental Health Department and several others. They come together and take these special-needs children under their wings and give them advantages that previously they did not have. Previously, it was up to the parent to take care of these special-needs children.

Now the state of Alabama through early Intervention Rehab Services, which is another department that is involved, these kids get a lot of attention today, whereas 20 years ago they got no attention and no help from the state.

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APR: They had their own trailer out behind the school that was their special schoolroom. That was all of the treatment that they received then.

WAGGONER: Yes, they were on their own. But, that one program that I sponsored and created has really meant a lot to me and those parents still come to see me, like this Kelly Rainer [referring to a picture] she comes by every year to talk about the Early Intervention Budget. So, I am very close to that family. I keep a picture [on my shelf] to remind me of that legislation.

It has been a rewarding experience through the years because you are put into a position to really help a lot of people. You know, my phone rings constantly. Some people are reasonable, some people are very nice, then you get some pretty rough customers to talk to every once in a while and that’s okay. They are expressing their opinion to their elected official and they have the right and the authority to do that.

It has been a great experience. I am in my 39th year in this legislative arena. It has been a very rewarding experience and one that I wouldn’t change for any other experience. I have really enjoyed it.

Of course, today, being in the majority, it is a lot more rewarding. I feel like I have more input and influence over this process than I did when I was in the minority for those many years.

APR: I have to say, the day you broke the filibuster, watching you was like watching a ballet from the gallery. I had never seen a filibuster. This is actually my first time being this involved in the government role and we are totally immersed in it. Watching you that day go in and invoke Cloture and start pushing those rules out of Rules Committee while Del Marsh and Cam Ward and all of the rest making sure that the microphones were occupied while Singleton was about to have a coronary, was a thing of beauty to watch your experience kick in and all of these other senators follow your lead, essentially, as if you were in a dance together.

WAGGONER: That is when we Clotured three or four times in one day, wasn’t it?

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APR: Yes, it was and it was wonderful to watch. What do you hope to accomplish this session?

WAGGONER: Today, [Thursday], was the 15th legislative day, and we are in [session] 30 [days], so we are half way. Of course we are taking Spring Break all of next week but we will come back April 3. We have some heavy lifting the last 15 days.

We have both budgets, the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund. The General Fund is in horrible condition, the education budget is fair.

Not like it used to be. We could survive with education but the General Fund is really an ongoing problem.

We have the immigration law to deal with, we have charter schools. We have several complicated, real controversial pieces of legislation that we have to deal with. Jobs bills.

We have a local issue in Jefferson county that is a high-profile situation.

We will be working some late nights the last 15 days of the session. We may be be here until the middle of May.

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We start the budget process the week after we come back. The education budget will originate here in the Senate. The General Fund will originate in the House.

APR: Do you have any advice to young senators?

WAGGONER: I think that young senators really need to learn the rules of the Senate which is our Playbook, so to speak. We live or die by our rules. Some of them are very complicated and hard to understand but it is hard to survive out on the Senate Floor unless you have a reasonable knowledge of the rules under which we operate and by which we operate.

The new Republican senators that were elected in 2010 are bright and hardworking. They are here for all of the right reasons. They are fully involved. They are learning the rules. They are learning the process. In my opinion, the Republican legislators that have been elected in the House and Senate, I think this legislature is in good shape for the foreseeable future because of the bright, young, knowledgable, energetic guys that represent their districts in Alabama.

We would like to thank Senator Waggoner for taking time out of his very busy schedule to speak with us. We wish him much success and God speed.

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