By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
In 2010 the people of Alabama gave the Republican Party commanding majorities in both the Alabama House and the Senate. When the Republicans were in the minority, they had very little ability to move legislation through the legislature; but they were very capable of killing legislation that they did not like. A perfect example being efforts by Milton McGregor and Ronnie Gillie to legalize their gambling fiefdoms after the fact. During Democratic Party rule, Year after year McGregor’s Sweet Home Alabama bills would be introduced in the legislature. Hours, days, even weeks would be wasted debating a bill that the Republicans would filibuster. McGregor would pull away a Republican here and there (see Senator Harri Anne Smith for example); but it was never enough and despite having the full support of the Democratic party leadership all of his efforts failed.
The tables turned in the election of 2010. Not only did Republicans win, they won a super majority in both Houses of the state legislature. That ended any hope of McGregor’s gaming legislation being debated, much less ever pass; but it also gave Alabama Republicans a chance to reinvent Alabama government. High on the Republican agenda has been school choice. Thousands of Alabama students go to schools that fail to educate their students year after year. Republicans believe in competition and have long favored giving those poor children a change to leave to go to better schools, and perhaps succeed in this life.
The Alabama Education Association (AEA) and the education bureaucracies have long opposed school choice; because they believe that the parents who are most engaged in education (and who often are parents of the best children in the school) are the ones who are most likely to take their child and leave the school. Their fear is that the children and the state money that follows the child will leave for a new school. The children that will be left behind will have the parents who are the least engaged and they are often the poorest performing students. With declining enrollment and revenues the poor performing school has to make budget cuts as children and state money leaves the building. Services like band, choir, sports, art, music, etc are cut due to declining state appropriations only motivating more parents to take their children and leave. Schools are consolidated. Children have to go farther to go to school. With their neighborhood school hove more parents opt out. More students (and state money) leave the system. The State and federal government puts more pressure on the school and conditions become increasingly hopeless as everybody with a kid and a decent job avoids buying homes in that failing school district and even the poor search for escape routes out. We have been watching this death cycle in the Birmingham City Schools now for years and that was without any school choice options like scholarships. Tens of thousands of residents have moved to Birmingham’s suburbs to give their children a better education and hope for a better life. Birmingham announced the closing of seven more schools on Tuesday. The fear of the people who work in those failing schools is that their jobs are going away as the size of each graduating class grows smaller and smaller. If those kids can get scholarships to better schools or even private schools then those jobs are going to go away even faster. The AEA represents its members whether they work in good schools or bad schools.
The AEA has made their concerns clear to every one of their “friends” in the legislature. Democrats in Alabama have sided with education employees for decades and have steadfastly opposed any sort of reform that involved giving anyone any kind of a school choice. Following the 2010 election, AEA strategy has been to use their Democratic Party allies to slow the process through filibusters while siphoning off Republicans who are sympathetic to Republican causes. The AEA strategy worked masterfully in the 2012 legislative session. They killed Governor Robert Bentley (R) effort to use education fund money for general fund money and they defeated a modest charter schools bill in the Alabama Senate. That strategy has been thwarted at every turn in the 2013 legislative session. The AEA opposed the School Flexibility Act, which created options for school boards to be granted waivers from some state mandates. Despite their best efforts it cruised through both the Alabama House and Senate with only token filibusters that were easily swept aside by the Republican supermajority. During the mundane conference committee meeting to resolve minor differences between the Senate and House versions of the bill, an 18 page addition was made to the bill creating options for kids in terrible schools to get scholarships to go to either another public school or even a private (and almost certainly non-union) school. This was the AEA’s worst case scenario because it directly threatened their membership’s jobs. The radically different bill went to the House and the Senate and again Republicans closed ranks and crushed the sad little opposition that the Alabama Democratic Party could muster. With a Democratic Party majority the AEA was once the most powerful lobbying force this state has ever seen, now it’s best efforts can’t even slow the process for a few hours.
The take home message from all of this is that for anybody who is trying to move legislation in Alabama they must have influence with Republican legislators. In this session Democrats have been entirely unable to even slow the process (as Thursday’s exercise in futility showed) much less move any of their own legislation. Redistricting (another area where the Republican supermajority steamrolled over the token opposition of their Democratic Party colleagues) will likely allow most of the Republican legislators to consolidate their base and roll to easy general election victories in 2014. Throwing money at some hopelessly outmatched Democratic Party challenger appears to be an almost hopeless exercise in most districts at this point. A massive turnout of pro-Democratic party voters won’t accomplish much because most of them live in majority minority districts. President Obama only carried 39% of the Alabama vote; but that is an oversimplification. Obama won 95% of the Alabama Black vote and most of them live in those majority minority districts negating their ability to influence much in the majority of state distrcits. Gov. Bentley (R) at the top of the ticket looks unbeatable at this point. Expecting that a third or more of Romney/Bentley voters will split their tickets with a Democratic challenger in a Republican legislative district looks like mission impossible in the coming election. The Democratic Party has little realistic change to win a majority of the seats in either house and will struggle to even find seats where they can run a competetive race at this point.
If we accept that Democrats can’t pass legislation in the state and if we accept that Democrats have no power to stop legislation in the state (even when their strongest backer’s agenda is on the line) and if we accept the supposition that none of that is likely to change in 2014, then all of the smart money needs to go to Republican candidates if you are really serious about having any influence on politics in this state at all. Whether lobbyists send that money to friendly Republican incumbents or to friendly Republican challengers, the real election to focus on appears to be the 2014 Republican primaries, not the general election, which is likely to simply be just another predictable referendum on Obama’s unpopular policies.