By Graham L. Champion
The dust is finally beginning to settle down in Montgomery after the First Special Session of 2015 adjourned Sine Die on Tuesday afternoon, August 11, 2015 without passing a General Fund Budget. As the press endeavored to seek the truth behind what happened during that 30-day period the finger pointing, and blame was any place that one could see. The Governor blamed the Legislature and particularly the Legislative Leadership, the Legislators blamed the Governor for not working with them and calling the Legislature back a month earlier than what he had seemed to indicate he would. Republicans blamed Democrats for not caring about the needs of those on Medicaid and those cared for by the Department of Mental Health. Democrats blamed Republicans for not being able to get their act together and pass something since, as one Member of the Black Caucus said, “The Republicans have not just a super majority they have a super-duper majority”. Budget Chairs indicated that the public did not really seem to care about the problems because all they (the Budget Chairs) were hearing were “cricket chirps’ from back home. The people back home blamed both the Governor and the Legislature for being “do nothing” elected officials. Blame everywhere – answers nowhere to be found. Let’s examine some of these issues.
The Governor placed blame on the Legislative Leadership for not working with their Members to ensure that the votes were in place to pass his proposed taxes in Committee. He also blamed special interests for killing his proposals. In remarks by the Governor on Wednesday, August 19, 2015, to the Governor’s Health Care Improvement Task Force there are press reports that the Governor said, “We’re not going to get blamed for it, because we are going to put the blame where the blame is. The people are going to know who’s responsible for not solving it.”
As for the Legislators, they were quick to place blame on the Governor for his self-described surprise in the timing of the First Special Session. Legislators asserted that they were working on plans for solving the budget deficit when they were ambushed. The two Budget Chairmen also pointed to the fact that they had no idea what the Governor was planning when he announced the date for the Special Session. As the Legislature returned to Montgomery on August 3, it became very evident that there still had been very little communication from the Governor’s Office to those Legislators who were being asked to Sponsor key Bills in the Governor’s package. One key example was the legislation to unearmark revenue to General Fund agencies. According to the Sponsor, he was asked as he was getting off the elevator at the State House that morning to Sponsor the legislation – a 99-page Bill. By the time the Bill was up in Committee the next day, there was a 35-page amendment. By the time the legislation got to a Senate Committee there were a number of affected agencies that pointed out that claims being made about the impact of the legislation were not accurate. The Bill died in Senate Committee. It quickly became evident that there was a lack of preparation and coordination on the Governor’s package.
The Republicans blamed the Democrats for several things. First they blamed the Democrats for not having fixed the problem when the Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate since we all know this problem has been years in the making. They then blamed the Democrats for not caring about those served by Medicaid, Mental Health and the Department of Human Resources. The Democrats blamed the Republicans for not using their “super-duper” majority to just push the legislation through. (The problem with that notion is that there are a number of different factions within the Republican Caucus that seem to be having difficulty agreeing on what course is the best.)
The lack of coordination between the Governor’s Office and the two Budget Chairmen was a huge obstacle. In most cases, the Governor has worked closely with the Leadership of the Legislature BEFORE calling the Special Session to ensure that the votes are in place and that there will be an efficient process in place. That did evidently did not happen this time. It can only be hoped that the necessary coordination will take place before the Second Special Session.
And finally, the people back home blamed everyone except themselves for the inaction in Montgomery While there are pockets of interest pushing hard to support the Governor’s efforts the vast majority of the people back home are not stepping up. As the Governor correctly pointed out those that are speaking up are special interests. They are the state employees that will be laid off, they are the hospitals that will close, and the nursing homes that will turn out residents, the pediatricians that will see their practices decimated, the people who will not be served by Medicaid or Mental Health Centers. Yes, these voices are the voices of special interests. Nevertheless, are we not all special in the eyes of our loved ones? Medicaid has been described by some an entitlement program for the poor and unemployed. What many do not understand is that more than 50% of the live births in Alabama are paid for with Medicaid dollars and more than 65% of those served by Medicaid are children. People do not stop to think that because of the dollars coming into a hospital through Medicaid a hospital may be able to create a Neo-natal intensive care unit – a unit that will be used by all those in need, not just a Medicaid patient. That the MRI machine might not be there if not for Medicaid support. Yes, it is easy to blame someone else rather than taking the responsibility on one’s self.
Electoral politics has become very polarized on both the extreme left and the extreme right. In order to get the nomination of a political party, candidates must adhere to certain litmus tests. If not, the candidate does not get the party nomination. The problem is that government cannot run on extremes. Politics is the art of the possible. There will always be a need for reasonable discussion, debate and compromise but that does not seem to exist in this atmosphere. One of the best examples of this theory is what we have been told were the results from a poll taken just before the Organizational Session of the Alabama Legislature in January 2015. A question was asked if the respondent would support a $1.00 per pack increase in the cigarette tax. Reportedly, 80% responded they would support that increase. A follow-up question was asked of those who responded that they would support the increase. They were asked that since they supported an increase in the cigarette tax would the voter hold it against the legislators that voted for the increase as a violation of their no new tax pledge. Again, reportedly 75% of those who supported the tax increase indicated they would hold it against anyone voting for the tax. Herein lies the problem – People, generally, want what they want, when they want it and expect others to pay for.
I am reminded of something I learned as a young child – When you point your finger at someone else, remember that there are three pointing back at you. As for who should be blamed for the mess we are in there is enough blame to be spread among all of us. Until we bite the bullet and realize that something has to give and that we must have more, stable and growing revenue we are going to continue pointing fingers and not solving problems. Maybe it is time that we forget about who is to blame and remember the adage “It is amazing what can be accomplished when we do not worry about who gets the credit”.