By Joey Kennedy
Alabama Political Reporter
I’ve been writing about Alabama politics and policies for more than a quarter of a century, most of that time as a member of The Birmingham News editorial board.
Since leaving The News in February, I’ve been writing the back-page column for B-Metro magazine in Birmingham; filming a weekly opinion segment for Alabama TV; and, along with my wife, trying to build our website, Animal Advocates of Alabama into the state’s most substantial animal advocacy news and information website.
So I have been busy. But when Alabama Political Reporter Editor in Chief Bill Britt called to ask if I’d like to pick up my political advocacy columns again for APR, I saw an amazing opportunity.
I guess I’ll be a little busier.
What better time for a political columnist to return than during a crucial special session of the Alabama Legislature to fix all sorts of problems with the state’s general fund budget (SGF)?
When the Legislature adjourned in June, Gov. Robert Bentley vetoed the SGF. The budget was about $200 million short, and Bentley didn’t want to cut services any more. That’s understandable. Alabama has never provided what one might call “robust” services to its citizens.
Now, in this special session, Bentley is proposing about $310 million in revenue (tax) increases. The Legislature came into special session on Monday, as Bentley called for, met for a few minutes, then both the House and Senate adjourned until Aug. 3.
That’ll give lawmakers plenty of time to consider their options before returning, but looking at comments made by state leaders on that first, short day, a prognosis for a good outcome is not encouraging.
Some examples: Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston), in a story by APR’s Susan Britt, said he has introduced gaming bills once again.
In another story by APR’s Brandon Moseley, House Speaker Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) said gambling “is a moot point” and to consider gambling legislation would be “A total waste of our time. That doesn’t do anything to help us in 2016.”
Already the Senate and House are facing off over gambling.
Hubbard, meanwhile, said about the budget’s woes: “The Legislature will come up with its own solutions,” and not be “pigeon holed” by Bentley’s agenda.
Didn’t the Legislature just finish a regular session where the Legislature did not come up with its own solutions?
Remarkable in all of this is that Bentley is a Republican and both the House and Senate have supermajority Republican control. Don’t they all have the same agenda?
No, and this is not unusual in Alabama. When Democrats controlled the Legislature, and the governor was a Democrat, these kinds of fiscal crises were just as common.
That’s because in Alabama, populism matters much more than political parties. Raising taxes isn’t popular (“No new taxes!” exclaim conservatives) – even when the revenue currently produced leaves the SGF gasping for breath. Neither, generally, is gambling, though we have it already. Yet, the state gets nothing for hosting the Native American casinos that make millions of dollars right now, and all the states around us have some form of state-sanctioned gambling.
Some readers who have followed me over the years call me a “liberal” (and all sorts of other names). That’s OK. Comes with the territory. Generally, I look at an issue, study the problem and decide what proposal I believe would work in the best interests of Alabama citizens, regardless of whether it’s from the left, middle or right. There may be other ideas that would get us there, and I’m good with that, too.
But, hey, let’s get us there.
Instead, too often lawmakers and governors focus on those hot-button issues – opposing marriage equality or chasing Alabama’s immigrants out of the state or photo voter ID or this (and any) year’s campaign against the Alabama Education Association.
Sadly, that’s where the votes are, and lawmakers (and governors) know it, and they know that by pressing that button, they’re more likely to get the votes they need (even if that means doing the wrong thing). Look at Alabama’s history. We’re a poor state where more frequently than not, voters – even poor voters – vote against their best interests. We’ve done it time and time again, and eventually it leads to a special legislative session of the sort we have now: Serious budget problems, iffy ideas to fix them, the House playing against the Senate and vice-versa, and both the Senate and House playing against the governor and vice-versa.
Alabama in 2015, and decades before, too.
It’s great to be back writing about this stuff.
Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes this column every Wednesday for Alabama Political Reporter.
Email: [email protected].