By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Both Alabama and Auburn play in bowl games on Thursday to start the New Year off right…with football and more football. That said, 2015 is already shaping up to be a huge year in Alabama politics and your Alabama Political Reporter is already hard at work covering the stories that shape your world. With 2014 coming to a close, we are looking ahead to what we expect to be the highlights of the New Year.
The General Fund Budget Crisis – the housing bubble explosion that set off the Great Recession is long past; but the State’s employment situation has never fully recovered. The percentage of Alabamians actually participating in this economy remains depressed as are wages for the average worker. Poorer Alabamians require more services, like Alabama Medicaid, pay little State income taxes and have less to spend, thus generate more limited sales taxes.
All this means that State revenues remain largely insufficient…..particularly in the General Fund where soaring Medicaid costs and a large prison populace are constant drains on an ever increasing portion of the General Fund. The Bentley administration and the Republican Super Majority artificially propped up the General Fund in 2012 with a raid on the Alabama Trust Fund. The temporary revenue spike from that raid, gave the State’s General Fund a brief respite now that money is gone and the legislature is facing a $250 million hole in the General Fund budget.
The Mike Hubbard Trial – the Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives is expected to be easily re-elected for another four years as Speaker when the legislature meets in January for the organizational session for this quadrennium. That will be the easy part for the State Representative from Auburn. In March, Speaker Hubbard is expected to go on trial for 23 counts of public corruption. The prospect of a sitting Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives standing trial on felony corruption charges and then leaving the court room to go preside over a session of the Alabama House of Representatives that evening promises to be a media circus that will likely draw national media attention.
The Lottery – the State needs revenue and some members of the legislature are willing to do anything to get it. Polls show that most Alabamians are receptive to some sort of a State lottery. Of course polls back in the 1990s showed that the lottery was popular back when Governor Don Seigelman (D) staked his governorship on a lottery vote….and lost. That lottery promised to send kids to college, fund pre-kindergarten and computers for classrooms…it went down in flames when it went to the voters. A lottery that funds primarily Alabama Medicaid and Alabama’s prisons that puts little or no money in the pockets of upper and middle class voters seems like a much harder sell.
Scholarship Granting Organizations – the Alabama Education Association (AEA) came hard after its Republican Super Majority foes in 2014 elections on the issue of the Alabama Accountability Act and lost. Every AEA backed GOP challenger in state Senate races lost and then the super majority took three seats from undermanned Democrats. The AEA knocked off about 6 or 7 Super Majority House seats in the Republican Primary; but then saw more Democrats get knocked off in the General Election blunting whatever gains the once powerful teachers union gained in the primary. That Republican Super Majority is angry at the AEA and is promising to take it out on the public schools. The big winner in this is expected to be the Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs). Currently, the Alabama Accountability Act allows only $20 million to be diverted from public education to the SGOs. The Alabama Political Reporter is hearing chatter that that number is expected to climb to $100 million and the number of students eligible for the scholarships to substantially increase.
More Corruption Indictments – In 2014 state Representative Greg Wren (R-Montgomery) plead guilty to using his office for personal gain. State Representative Barry Moore (R-Enterprise) and Speaker Hubbard were both indicted in the Lee County Public Corruption investigation (Moore later was found not guilty by a jury). The Alabama Political Reporter believes there will be more indictments and likely another investigative Grand Jury in 2015.
New ALGOP Leadership – the Alabama Republican Party is the de facto ruling party in the state of Alabama. Democrats were not competitive in any of the last three elections. They might return; but not for at least four years. This means that all things Republican have an over-sized influence as GOP incumbents worry more about GOP Primary voters than they do general elections in districts where Republicans routinely win with commanding majorities. Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead had put his stamp heavily on GOP politics and philosophy during his tenure as Chair. A new Chair and a new party leadership will be elected in February. How will the new Chair affect issues across the state moving forward?
Presidential Politics – Democratic Presidential politics look like it will be very similar to 2008 where the more moderate wing of the Democratic Party rallies around Hillary Clinton while the more hardcore left looks for a Hillary alternative, like possibly Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. Republican Presidential politics meanwhile looks like utter chaos at this point. Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich even Mitt Romney and Alabama’s own Jeff Sessions are just some of the numerous names being seriously bandied about in GOP circles in what looks like an unusually wide open field. Your Alabama Political Reporter will be there as the aspirants to America’s highest office come in and out of our State.
Marijuana – this issue gets more complicated every year. In 2014, the State legislation was passed that would allow oil derived from marijuana to be administered to persons with severe epilepsy (Carly’s Law). Whether or not this treatment is effective or if federal law is being violated are still issues that will come up in 2015, as in the recent unexpected announcement by the Obama administration that recognized Indian tribes would be allowed to sell medicinal marijuana potentially in defiance of State laws. Alabama’s Poarch band of Creek Indians (PCI) are studying this controversial proposal. If PCI were to move towards cashing in on this lucrative monopoly, would that spur the State legislature to decriminalize medical marijuana? Could taxing medicinal marijuana be a potential new State income source?
Medicaid – the State has passed legislation to switch Alabama’s troubled Medicaid program from a direct provider payment system administered by the State of Alabama to a managed care model run by regional care organizations (RCOs). This model is designed to limit the escalating costs of the program. The RCOs and the potential expansion of Medicaid are issues which we will follow closely in 2015.
Prison Reform – the State has to find a way to decrease its prison population and find ways to modernize its aging correctional facilities in 2015 or potentially face a Federal takeover of the troubled prison system. Sentencing reforms and prison privatization are subjects being widely discussed.
Tax Increases – this is the first year of the quadrennium. Voters have three years to forget about anything that legislators do to them this year, thus 2015 is the year where legislators are most likely to do something unpopular. Governor Robert Bentley (R), who will not have to ever face voters again, has proposed ending a number of state tax deduction which would cost Alabama taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Some members of the Bentley administration claim this is not a tax increase because it does not raise tax rates. That assertion has been dismissed by many as being ludicrous. The Alabama Political Reporter believes that additional income tax dollars would go to the education trust fund by law and cannot be diverted to the general fund. Many have suggested budget reform so that Alabama will have just one budget, this idea however would have to go to the voters. Could there be a special election in September?
Charter Schools – there are a lot of rumblings from super majority sources that a charter school bill is coming. Education reform advocates have been busy promoting school choice to legislators and moving more children out of the heavily unionized Alabama public schools is being talked about as another way to strike back at AEA.
Common Core – conservative opponents of Alabama’s controversial College and Career Ready Standards are organizing for the next legislative session. They are determined to see legislation passed that would see the unpopular curriculum replaced during this legislative session. Most Common Core backers in the legislature however saw reelection in 2014 so this is likely to be an uphill fight.
Casino Gambling – PCI operates three “electronic bingo” halls in Atmore, Wetumpka, and Montgomery. None of these establishments are licensed by the state of Alabama and the state collects no tax revenues from the Indian gaming. Will Alabama compromise with the Indians and set up a Compact acknowledging that the Indians have a de facto monopoly under federal law on gaming in exchange for a share of the revenue? Could a wider expansion of bingo bill pass a Republican controlled state legislature and go to the voters in 2015?
Constitution Reform – Alabama’s 1901 Constitution is the oldest and longest State Constitution. In 2014 an article by article rewrite of the constitution in a secret committee came to a screeching halt when Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) ruled that Senate President Del Marsh (R-Anniston) and the State legislature had exceeded their authority. Legislators are expected to bring back this controversial issue in 2015.
Partisanship in Washington – for the last four years legislation passed the U.S. House of Representatives and died a slow death in the U.S. Senate where hundreds of bill were never brought to the floor of the Senate by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada). That changes next week when new GOP Senators are sworn in. Voters across the country rejected Team Obama and elected Republican candidates to numerous offices, including the Senate.
Your Alabama Political Reporter will continue to provide unmatched coverage of your Alabama Congressional Delegation and their views on the issues affecting Alabama and the world.