By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Serving in his first term in the State Senate, Sen. Dr. Jim McClendon has a unique perspective on how the mechanics of the process actually works. Elected to the Alabama House of Representatives in 2002, he has served in the minority and the supermajority. He has chaired some of the House’s most powerful committees and was directly responsible for House redistricting after the 2010 census. But, McClendon admits that the Senate is different, and he is enjoying the change.
In the week following the end of the 2015 Session, McClendon shared some of his thoughts with the Alabama Political Reporter, about the Session and what comes next for State Government.
Toward the end of this Legislative Session, tension grew between the House and Senate, as well as among individual Senators. Some have been critical of this development, but not McClendon: “Just because you’ve got some senators who are passionate, that’s exactly what the voters love in Montgomery. They don’t want a milquetoast senator,” McClendon said. “There has been friction because there are differences of opinions…there are 35 different folks up there and everyone of them has an idea on how things should be done. And they’re more than willing to express a feeling that someone else disagrees with. That’s the way it works.”
McClendon says he was very pleased he was able to pass a number of local bills that affected his constituents in District 11. He offers solid praise for Rep. Jim Hill, his counterpart in the House: “We were able to get all of our legislation through early…It was really nice having a counterpart down there working the bills…a dynamic duo.”
Hill, a former Circuit Court Judge from St. Clair County, replaced McClendon in the House.
He says his greatest disappointment with the Session was the failure to pass the Alabama Ahead Act. The act, which would have replaced antiquated school text books with digital tablets, has been a project that he and Sen. Gerald Dial have worked together to pass for the last three sessions.
If enacted, this bill would save the State at least $15 million a year, while giving the State’s school children an learning advantage, according to McClendon. “Previously, the most vocal, outspoken objection, I’m not sure if it was a real objection, was using a bonding system in a finance project,” said McClendon. “The fact is, this project, once it implemented, and we go to 1:1 ratio…will save the State $15-$20 million a year on the cost of textbooks, and that would from now on.”
He believes the bill failed to gain traction in the end because of the budget crunch, and the uncertainty of the State’s General Fund. McClendon said that the bill could have passed without guaranteed funding but, “I didn’t want to pass a hollow bill, I thought that was inappropriate.”
McClendon says he plans on continuing to push to replace text books with tablets, because education would benefit while saving taxpayer’s money.
Senator McClendon represents some of the most conservative and fastest growing counties in the State, and he says the voters in his District do NOT have have an appetite for new taxes: “The folks who talk to me every day feel like—and I agree with,—we’ve got enough money in Montgomery to take care of our needs…And that’s pretty obvious by the fact that we have a surplus in the Education Trust Fund and a deficit in the General Fund.”
Working again with Sen. Dial, the pair offered legislation to eliminate all earmarks, and combine the Education Trust Fund, and the General Fund into one budget. He understands that there are those who worry that by combining the two budgets, prisons and Medicaid will eat into education funding but he disagrees with that assessment.
“Education believes we’re going to take their money and give it to the prisons. That’s not never going to happen,” said McClendon. “3/4 of our tax dollars go to Education…the last budget we passed put more Alabama tax payer money into the Education Trust Fund then we ever have in the history of the State.”
According to McClendon, over the years, the legislature has used various methods to prop up the anemic General Fund Budget, which in his mind was just avoiding what needed to be done: “There have been a variety of efforts to delay the inevitable… Well, the inevitable is here.”
“It was apparent that the House and the Senate and the Governor were a long way apart, really a triangle of thoughts that never came to the center,” said McClendon. “That really became apparent midway through the Session that there was going to be a serious struggle and for that reason…to come up with a workable General Fund budget was not achievable in the designated time.”
The Governor’s plan to raise around $500 million in taxes never gained wide support and neither did plans coming from the House and Senate. With House Speaker Mike Hubbard pushing for taxes and giving the Poarch Creek Indians a Monopoly over gambling in the State and Marsh offering no new taxes and an omnibus gaming bill.
“It’s time not only to look at the immediate needs and short-term fixes, but it’s time to try and look at this from a ten or twenty year outlook,” McClendon said. “We need to deal with this problem so we don’t face this crisis every year, and them hoping to fix it by borrowing money or praying for stimulus dollars to come in.”
While he says his District does not favor increased taxes, he thinks everything else must be put on the table including a lottery. “People in my district say, ‘Why don’t we have a lottery now?’ They look at me like, ‘Are people dumb down there?’…people are rolling their eyes at us,” said McClendon.
He admits that there has been a change of thinking in his District on gambling and a lottery, but he doesn’t hear an outcry for more gaming in the State.
“My people don’t even bring that…they say we’ve already got gambling in Alabama.”
McClendon represents all of St. Clair and portions of Shelby County where the population is experiencing rapid growth and his constituents are vocal about what kind to community they want.
“They are looking for a quiet place to live, small town atmosphere, and better schools,” says McClendon, and he will continue to serve the needs of those who overwhelming elected him.