By Graham L. Champion
On Wednesday, September 23, 2015, Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra passed away. Berra was a simple man who had a very great impact, not only on the world of baseball but also, on the lives of many, many Americans. His wit and wisdom, shown often in his remarkable statements, have become legend. In honor of this great man, and in no way intended to denigrate his wisdom, this issue of The Strategy Report will attempt to tie some of his quotes to the situation that is faced by Governor Bentley, the Alabama Legislature and the people of Alabama. Other quotations intended to amplify the great Yogi-isms have been added followed by a brief analysis of each situation.
“We made too many wrong mistakes.”
“Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past, for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.”
We have been involved with the Alabama Legislature for more than 21 years. Several thoughts come to mind – What goes around, comes around, all politics are local and the most important thing for an elected official is to get reelected – but never in those 21 years have we seen what was witnessed in 2015. It has been said that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. We are not suggesting that anything that has happened this year is corrupt. What is evident is that super majorities, whether Republican or Democrat, may not be the best situation for the State of Alabama. When the Democrats were in control it was not unusual to see the Democrat agenda predominate, but because they lacked the ability to rule absolutely, there was a necessary process to find some sense of compromise. When this writer was in business many years ago with his father a situation arose where the writer wanted to force an issue. Fortunately, the counsel of the older partner in the business was that “you might be able to hold a gum to their head and get what you want today. Remember that tomorrow your opponent might be holding that gun. What are you going to do then?” The answer comes back to Yogi’s quote “We made too many wrong mistakes.” Politics is the art of the possible and compromise is a very necessary part of that equation. Alabama cannot afford to have any more “wrong mistakes”.
“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”
“People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”
The Alabama Legislature understood collectively that there were problems with the Alabama budget process and how Alabama government is funded. The problem was that there were 140 different solutions reflecting every Member of the Alabama Legislature. There were so many different ideas about how to solve the problem that none could reach a consensus. Some felt that there were cuts that could be made to a bloated budget. Others thought that consolidation of the two budgets would solve the problem. Still others saw that additional revenues were needed to correct an underfunded state government. Additionally, the Democratic Caucus consistently voted against any revenue increase demanding that Medicaid be expanded before they would support the Republican efforts. With this kind of discord, resolving the problem on a long-term basis was virtually impossible. There were Members of the Legislature who thought they knew where they were going but without consensus, the Legislature was adrift searching for a destination.
“It was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much.”
“Our patience will achieve more than our force.”
In 1982, Auburn President Hanley Funderburk was under siege by the faculty at Auburn University. The Faculty Senate had voted on the future of President Funderburk and the result was a vote of no confidence. When those you are leading have no confidence in your leadership, it becomes impossible to lead. Following a Board of Trustees meeting, a member of the press approached Funderburk and asked a question of the embattled President. To his credit, Funderburk responded, “If I thought you had a meaningful question I would respond. You, however, are more interested in the impact of the question than the answer. I have no comment.” One of the phrases that has become common in the Alabama Senate in the past few years is when one Senator say, “Madam President, I would like to dialog with the Senator’. For there to be a dialog there must be parties on both sides that speak and more importantly parties that LISTEN. Until the Members of the Legislature are willing to listen to meaningful debate as opposed to hearing only what they are saying, it is going to be difficult to achieve any success.
“You don’t have to swing hard to hit a home run. If you got the timing, it’ll go.”
“When leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people.”
Berra’s comment above speaks to patience, focus and timing. The legislative process can be compared to a three-legged stool. The legs that support that stool are vital to the stool remaining upright. Deferring to Berra that first leg is patience. Members of the Legislature need to approach solving the problems facing them in a spirit of WE, rather than US and THEM. The often-combative debate can find far more chance of success if cooler heads prevail and finger pointing does not occur. The second leg is focus. One advantage found in the just completed Second Special Session was the absolute focus that was necessary. With a broader Call for the Session and the looming end of the fiscal year, Legislators knew that there was not time to kick the can down the road any more this year. With that focus, decisions, albeit tough decisions, were made and a potential government shutdown was averted. The third leg of the stool is timing. We have all heard the phrase “everything in its own time’ before, and the legislative process must move at its own deliberate speed. When legislators try to force an issue that issue normally does not succeed. It is only after the issue has had time to rise similar to a loaf of bread and get to the point where it is time to bake the loaf that the bread is fit to eat. Timing is everything and if the Leadership, both Republican and Democrat, takes the opportunity during the period between the Second Special Session and the convening of the next Session (Special or Regular) to float possible solutions without worrying about who gets the credit there is a very real possibility that serious budget reform might just happen.
“It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting the same results.”
One thing that the State of Alabama cannot afford to see happen is the partisan gridlock that has been present for the past five years. Both Democrats and Republicans alike have voted virtually lock step along party lines. It is true that the Republicans have a super majority in both the Senate and the House and can control the agenda as they wish. That may not always be the case and if a spirit of cooperation is not fostered the Legislature is doomed to continued turmoil. In the real world, the most basic law of physics is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the world of politics, there is the First Rule of Political Physics. That law can be summed up as “In politics there is no such thing as an equal and opposite reaction. In politics it is always an overreaction”. What we have witnessed has not been the most successful process over the past several years. Perhaps it is time to try a new approach to governing.
“It ain’t over till it’s over.”
“It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”
While it hurts to use this analogy, we must recognize that Alabama is the fifth most obese state in the United States. When the fat lady (or gentleman) sings maybe, the Alabama Legislature and Governor Bentley will understand that the status quo is not good enough. In order to make a difference in the State of Alabama, bold, and perhaps politically unpopular, decisions need to be made. It is time that our elected representatives realize that reelection should not be the primary focus. Yes, reelection is very important but not the only thing that should be the driving force. The decisions that were made during the Second Special Session were a very good start.
Let us hope that the progress made during that Session will not be the last time that we see tough decisions prevail over political expediency. The majority of the Members of the Alabama Legislature are good, well meaning, Legislators that want what is best for Alabama.
The State of Alabama is at a crucial crossroad that must be addressed by bold and courageous action. We have every confidence that as the Legislature reconvenes, whether in another Special Session this Fall to debate a proposed Constitutional Amendment that would allow the voters to decide about enacting a statewide lottery, or, in the 2016 Regular Session, to consider how to fundamentally reform the budget process and revenue sources, that they will put responsible public policy before political expediency.
Perhaps this writer is somewhat naïve, but we believe that at the end of the day our Legislators will do what is right for the people. Our country has survived political differences for nearly 240 years. We are still the most envied country in the world with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people wanting to relocate to the United States every year. Alabama has as much, if not more, to offer people than any other state.
We wish the Alabama Legislature the best of luck and stand ready to assist them in any way possible to put the State of Alabama on a firm financial footing. As Sen. Phil Williams has recalled about a former employer “Perfection and excellence are not the same thing”. We do not seek perfection, we do hope for excellence.