By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—“I think it was probably the toughest session that I’ve had in the last five years,” is the overwhelming sentiment expressed by Sen. Paul Bussman (R-Cullman), just days after the conclusion to the 2015 Legislative Session.
Sen. Bussman, who serves as a Republican from one of the State’s most conservative areas said his frustration began to surface when Gov. Robert Bentley came to his district to promote his $451 million tax package.
He also points to growing polarization in the Senate and House, and finally, the heavy-handed lobbying by Business Council of Alabama (BCA), all of which led to a very disappointing session.
As Bentley barnstormed the State, many Senators felt left out of the process, as well as those who believed the Governor had dissed them in the process.
“First off, the Governor was traveling around the State wearing us out in his little tax tour,” said Bussman. “He came to our area and said some things I found inappropriate,” which generated some tension between the Senator and Bentley.
As the session waned, the Legislature faced a major challenge with competing ideas about the General Fund.
Bussman said, “There was a power struggle the whole time…The House and the Senate just didn’t seem to function well together at all. As we went further along in the session, it seemed like we got farther apart.”
He, like others in the legislative process, witnessed a growing divide between the Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, (R-Anniston), and House Speaker Mike Hubbard, (R-Auburn). In the previous four years, these two worked together as a team, with Hubbard mainly setting the agenda. “But, this session” as Bussman observed, “Del and Mike didn’t seem to gel as well as they have in the past on getting things accomplished.” Bussman believes this divide created a vacuum which was taken advantage of by lobbyists, especially the BCA.
“While we were trying to accomplish things, it just seemed like there was a void there, and in that void you had all these outside elements coming in: BCA, Poarch Creek Indians, Alabama Power, all the groups that I think saw that void and felt there was a need to fill it. And that led to some issues that did me in, on several occasions.”
On more than one occasion, Bussman stood in the well of the Senate, and voiced his displeasure, regarding the strong arm tactics used by the BCA:
“If I put in a bill that BCA or somebody else disagrees with, and they can kill it immediately without even having the opportunity to discuss it give it a chance, that is not how the system is suppose to work…I came to serve my district not Montgomery special interests…if my only job is to rubber stamp an agenda, I might as well go back to my dental practice.”
Bussman says that no organization should have the power to override the representation of the people:
“If you sit back and let whoever it is run over you because they can, that just eliminates you as a representative of 150,000 people.”
Bussman and other Senators did not just sit and be run over, they fought back, stopping pet legislation from the BCA and others:
“I’ve got to inflict some discomfort on them to make them stop doing that…You’ve got to find a bill that is just as important to them as yours is to you, and get their attention. That’s just a part of the process….They need to know that there will be consequences for them for just indiscriminately not liking a bill.”
Bussman has said several times, that the legislature of late has simply traded the BCA for the once powerful AEA (Alabama Education Association), and he doesn’t think any one group should hold that much sway over the legislative process.
The influence of big business is evident in the Legislature’s failure to overturn Common Core. Bussman, like many conservatives, including the State and National GOP, oppose Common Core Standards for education.
However, the business community, by and large, has embraced the program. Bussman says it comes down to, “If we want to get things done we’ve got to get their [Big Business’] blessing…I’m not sure if that’s a positive thing for the future.”
Issues like Common Core, and social issues have divided the chambers of the State House, while Pro-life bills, gun bills, and others, have simply languished and died.
Bussman said, “I think there were a few things that should have had time for discussion. The Pro-life stuff has always been put on the back burner. I don’t know why. It’s the same way with some of these other bills, like Common Core. I think at one point we’ll have to have that discussion, have a vote one way or the other and be done with it.”
Bussman said that the bill to revise the Alabama Accountability Act with increased funding caused him some problems: “In my opinion, there was no information or data that said there was a reason to expand that program.”
Recent data released by the SGOs that raise money for the program’s scholarship funds found that only 29 percent of the millions raised actually goes to students from failing schools. That was the main selling point of the bill when it was passed.
He also expressed concern for the State’s two-year college system, and hopes the recent passage of a bill to create a separate board to oversee the colleges has a positive effect.
The Senator thought the passage of prison reform was a real success, but was disappointed after an amendment that could jeopardize reform was added:
“I think the Prison Reform was huge success but I was very upset that an amendment was placed on the bill that made funding the program conditional.”
After having toured some of Alabama’s overcrowded prisons, Sen. Bussman said, “It was an eye-opening experience into a problem that must be fixed or face grave consequences…I’ve said this before and will keep saying it: We’re going to have a prison guard getting killed and that’s going to be on us.”
As for the coming special session, Sen. Bussman remains optimistic but says, that they must, “put everything on the table” for a “long-term solution…I’m confident we can do that, and enough good people in the Senate, who are there for the right reasons come together. I have offered my services.”