By Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford
It’s not often that Sen. Del Marsh and I agree on political issues (take the Accountability Act for example). But there is one issue that he and I strongly agree on, and that is the need to stop the revolving door that has become elected office.
Since the 2010 elections, there have been ten elected officials who have resigned. Some left to take other positions in government. But others left in order to make more money in the private sector as lobbyists and consultants.
For example, Congressman Jo Bonner resigned to take a position with the University of Alabama System where he now makes more than twice as much as he did in Congress (his pay went from $174,000 to $350,000 per year).
Elected office is supposed to be a public service, not a steppingstone to a higher paying job in the private sector.
Serving in elected office is also a promise you make to the people who elected you. As an elected official, you made a commitment to the people of your district that you would be their voice in the government; that you would work for them and be their representative for the entirety of your term of office.
But too many elected officials are now breaking that promise to their constituents and leaving their districts without a voice in our government while they cash out for their new jobs.
In Congress, the people of South Alabama are without a voice right now at a time when our government is about to shut down. Now more than ever, we need our congressmen to do their jobs, not leave us in the dark while they cash out.
And even though the state legislature is not in session at the moment, the people of House Districts 74 in Montgomery and 104 in Mobile have no representative to work for them if they have an issue with state government. If you live in one of those districts and you have, for example, an issue with Medicaid or obtaining grant money for your local school, you are just out of luck.
But this issue goes beyond the broken promises and abandoned constituents. Because in most of these cases there now has to be a special election to fill these seats, and special elections cost money.
The expense of a special election can depend on several factors: how many counties are in the district and will there be a primary, runoff and general election or just a primary and general election.
The press recently reported that in 2011, the state spent $300,00 on three special elections while a special election in Madison County that took place a few weeks ago also cost the state about $300,000.
In my conversations with state elections experts, the general consensus is that a typical special election will probably cost the state between $200,000 and $300,000 on average.
That means that, at a minimum, these special elections over the past three years are costing the state at least $2 million. Think about what we could have used that money for instead.
We could have bought new textbooks for our schools, or saved over 30 law enforcement, firefighter and education jobs. We could have put metal detectors in our schools and better locks on classroom doors to make our schools safer. At the very least, we could have devoted that money to paying back the debt on the $437 million Republicans borrowed last year to prevent Medicaid from collapsing.
But instead, we are spending that $2 million to pay for special elections so that a handful of elected officials can make a bigger profit. It is just plain wrong.
So I agree with Sen. Marsh that we need to tighten up the laws preventing legislators from resigning to become lobbyists. But I also think we need to go further, because some of these elected officials are lobbying though they are still working in politics.
I think we should also require elected officials who resign for any reason other than health needs or appointment to state or federal office to pay the costs of the special election to fill their seat. If a state legislator knew it would cost them $200,000 to $300,000 to leave, they would think twice before taking that consulting or lobbying job.
Holding public office is supposed to be a service to your community, not a steppingstone to a fat pay raise in the private sector. Our elected officials should take their responsibilities seriously, and honor their commitment to their constituents. And if they don’t then they should pay for the trouble that they cause.
Representative Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.