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Bill Britt

Opinion | Yes, we can

Bill Britt

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“We have to quit saying ‘We can’t do this,'” is how one senior lawmaker summarized the fight over Gov. Kay Ivey’s infrastructure plan.

“I’d rather make a wrong choice in moving the state forward than make no choice and hold the state back from achieving real success,” is how a second legislator addressed the infrastructure issue in a casual conversation in the hall of the State House.

Privately, most lawmakers want to approve the Rebuild Alabama Act, but a hard-core few refuse to see that investing in Alabama’s future even with an imperfect plan is better than doing nothing.

But nothing is something state leadership has always done when faced with difficult choices.

Ivey is not having it. She has set a course undeterred by critics and naysayers.

“I’m proud that Gov. Ivey is showing bold leadership,” said a third lawmaker. “She has the courage and conviction of a true leader.”

No one wants to pay more taxes, but there is a cost for success and an even higher price for failure.

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The former mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, Mark Funkhouser wrote, “Government in a democracy is essentially a conservative institution. It is responsible for creating and sustaining markets, enforcing contracts, protecting private property, and producing systems of education and infrastructure that allow commerce to function efficiently.”

Smart public leaders understand that government must do the big things that citizens can’t do alone.

When President Ronald Reagan said “Government is the problem,” it was not a blanket condemnation as some have wrongly supposed. Reagan used the levers of government to enrich the nation through conservative policy, not by sticking his head in the sand and doing nothing. He acted boldly.

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As Funkhouser notes, Reagan’s statement was, “[A] reaction to a specific situation in which the federal government seemed particularly ineffective.” Reagan went on to say that “it’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work.”

Like Reagan, Ivey is trying to make government work to improve the state’s economy, education and quality of life for all citizens. A robust infrastructure is the underpinning to a state’s success.

But sadly, Alabama knows how to fail and it does it with ease.

Underfunded schools, unhealthy citizens and underemployed men and women are the norm.

Poverty and despair are found in every corner of the state, not because people chose to be poor but because they lack opportunity.

Meanwhile, those who occupy the lofty offices of power say, “We can’t.”

When the governor asks for a modest fuel tax increase, some want to raze the capital.

When Democrats want to expand Medicaid for those without health care many of the same people cry, “We can’t afford it.”

But we can, and we must invest in our state or remain forever at the bottom on every measurable metric of success.

When, as a young boy, I would say “I can’t,” my mother would look at me and say, “Can’t never could.” Back then I’d roll my eyes. But she was right.

Our leaders to need to admit we can.

 

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Bill Britt

Perspective | Can the Legislature write a stronger, clearer and enforceable ethics code? There’s a way

Bill Britt

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When the cell door closed behind former Alabama Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard at 5:05 p.m. on Friday, Sept 11, 2020, there was a momentary sign of victory, but also a chill braced the state’s political landscape.

What happens next will be most consequential as the Alabama Supreme Court, and to a lesser degree the Court of Criminal Appeals, set in motion a need to rewrite certain aspects of the Alabama Ethics Act.

Due to the court’s tortured opinion, the Legislature will be forced to revise portions of the ethics statute to correct the so-called flaws the court found.

The question is, will they refine and reinforce the statute or dilute and weaken it?

Given the recent legislative history, the chances are likely that they will opt for the latter unless the press and public pay scrupulous attention to any changes to the present legislation.

Fortunately, there already exists a framework from which the 2010 Ethics Act can be rewritten to make current law better.

And there are some faint but encouraging signs that not all lawmakers and public officials will work to undermine the law. But in Alabama politics, there is often a vast sea of gray between what politicians say and what they do.

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In April, when the ALSC tossed six of Hubbard’s convictions, current Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon said, “The Supreme Court’s ruling has made it clear that our ethics law has flaws that must be addressed. Our task now is to fix those flaws without weakening any of the provisions that make our ethics law among the toughest in the country.”

After the court’s ruling, Gov. Kay Ivey released a statement saying, “I support seeking clarity on our state’s ethics laws to ensure those who want to abide by them may not be unfairly targeted,” Ivey said. “However, let me be abundantly clear, I do not support weakening a system that is meant to hold our elected officials accountable. The rule of law must be upheld.”

Attorney General Steve Marshall’s comments on the courts finding were on target, “While I am pleased that the Supreme Court agreed that former Speaker Hubbard broke the law and will be held accountable for his abuse of power, I am also disappointed in the court’s interpretation of Alabama’s ethics law concerning the definition of a principal,” Marshall said. “While I can live with the court’s insistence on a clearer definition of principal, going forward, that definition must also be strong.”

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The court’s ruling on principals smells more political than judicial. The current definition is not necessarily murky but has jeopardized some of the state’s political and business elites.

Ethics reform legislation that strengthened and clarified the Alabama Ethics Act of 2010, was approved by Republican House and Senate leadership in 2017, but quietly died because of politics as usual.

The legislation was written under the guidance of then-Attorney General Luther Strange with Matt Hart and Mike Duffy of the Special Prosecution Division taking the lead.

Lawmakers, ethics experts, and stakeholders were consulted throughout the process and eventually agreed that the bill would fix major concerns found in the 2010 Ethics Act.

An annotated version of the bill is still available on the attorney general’s website, where it could be quickly taken out of mothballs and prepared for passage.

This existing bill would substantially improve, the Alabama Ethics Act. It also codifies current law and can easily be updated to include the decisions of the Alabama Supreme Court and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and various advisory opinions from the Alabama Ethics Commission.

The proposed legislation from 2017 achieves three important goals: (1) encouraging honest people to serve in government by clearly defining the line between legal and illegal activity; (2) creates a clear and definite process through which people serving in government can obtain guidance regarding where a particular situation falls on that line; and (3) ensuring that those persons who violate the public’s trust are held accountable.

Specifically, the Act has been revised as follows: Improves the definition of “principal” to make clear that any person in a business that directs the activities of a lobbyist is a principal, while others in the business or on boards are not necessarily principals. This bill also gives the Ethics Commission more flexibility in identifying principals in disclosure forms.

Enforcement for minor violations is improved by giving the Ethics Commission and attorney general or appropriate district attorney more flexibility, subject to specified criteria, in resolving minor violations through administrative resolutions for public employees.

This bill also narrows the Act’s application to lower-level public employees to ease compliance and improve enforcement. To that end, it exempts grade school teachers, higher education athletic coaches, police officers, firefighters, and other first responders from the limitations on taking things of value from lobbyists and principals, filing statements of economic interest, and asking a lobbyist for something. Additional lower-level public employees are also exempt from filing statements of economic interests. The bill further provides discretion for the Ethics Commission and the Attorney General to exempt any class of public employee supervisors, subject to specific criteria.

The framework of the 2017 presented legislation offers many needed additions and restrictions.

The legislation offered in 2017, had a broad agreement, among lawmakers, business interests, lobbyists and others, and while massive, it was painstakingly reviewed and revised.

Hubbard’s imprisonment and the court’s ruling opens a door for the Legislature to create an even better ethics act, but it must be done with care and subject to rigorous oversight.

Justice prevailed in the Hubbard case even while it was assaulted at every turn.

Now it’s time for the Legislature to ensure that the ethics code is more robust, precise, and enforceable.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Mike Hubbard: Prisoner No. 1

Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard is now the state’s most famous inmate, and as prisoner No. 1, he deserves no more and no less than to serve his time in a state correctional facility.

Bill Britt

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Mike Hubbard looks toward his family after receiving sentencing on Friday, July 8, 2016, in Opelika, Ala. Todd Van Emst/Opelika-Auburn News/Pool Todd Van Emst/Opelika-Auburn News/Pool

When former Republican Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard turns himself in to began his four-year sentence a few days from now, he will be the most high-profile inmate in Alabama’s state prison system.

Many suspect that Hubbard will be granted special considerations because of his connections and wealth, but that would be a travesty of justice.

Hubbard committed crimes against the people of Alabama and should serve out his sentence like any other criminal.

“Public corruption tears at the fabric of our communities and our national security,” according to the FBI. “Elected or appointed officials are entrusted and expected to protect the interests of the people with integrity. When that trust is betrayed, the security and stability of our government is put at risk.”

Among his many crimes, Hubbard used his elected office for personal gain, used public resources and personnel to illicit millions illegally to enrich himself.

During his time as speaker of the house, Hubbard presided of an orgy of greed and corruption; he swindled businesses and used his office’s power to destroy lives, all while building an empire on deception.

When he sold his office for ill-gotten profits, his family earned around $500,000 annually with a net worth in the neighborhood of $8 million. But Hubbard was not satisfied; he wanted more. To Hubbard, voters were fools, legislators pawns, and big-business patrons all there for his use.

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Before his conviction and afterward, Hubbard used every avenue of the justice system, legal and extra-judicial.

To keep Hubbard from justice, lawmakers, lobbyists, financial backers and some of the most prominent names in the state worked to undermine the judicial process.

Even the Alabama Supreme Court twisted its final opinion on his guilt like a Cirque du Soleil contortionist reluctantly saying in essence, “We are sorry to send you to prison, Mike, but we have no other choice.”

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It is up to the Department of Corrections to make sure that Hubbard does every day of his sentence behind bars in state prison.

There should be no more special treatment for Hubbard because he is wealthy or once held sway over Alabama politics.

Today, Hubbard is a criminal who stole when he didn’t need to, cheated when the rules were inconvenient and abused people and the political system because he could.

Hubbard must not be permitted to serve his time in county jail. He should not be set free because of the prison’s health hazards or overcrowding. Hubbard never lifted a finger for inmates’ health or prison conditions.

Hubbard disgraced himself but feels no remorse. He dishonored the state and must pay for his crimes.

Hubbard is now the state’s most famous inmate, and as prisoner No. 1, he deserves no more and no less than to serve his time in a state correctional facility.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Our state needs a think tank devoted to Alabama solutions for Alabama problems

Bill Britt

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Public policy is a complex issue, and scholars disagree on how to express it best. Still, in general, it is a system of laws and regulations that translates political visions into government actions.

For over a century—especially in the United States—think tanks have contributed to government policymaking.

Alabama needs a think tank that is truly devoted to what Gov. Kay Ivey describes as “An Alabama Solution to an Alabama Problem.”

“Think tanks play a critical role in analyzing, developing, and promoting policy solutions, particularly in times of extreme disruption and change,” according to a series held at The Wilson Center. “However, these organizations now operate in information-flooded societies where facts, evidence, and credible research are often ignored — and where ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ can gain a footing,” the symposium found. “To remain relevant and impactful, think tanks and policy institutes must simultaneously pursue rigor, innovation, accessibility, and accountability more than ever before.”

Distilled to its essence, a government’s policies, like politics, results in who gets what and how. Here in Alabama, far too often, systems are designed to benefit the few while ignoring the many. Even worse, laws and regulations have been used to control and, at times, abuse citizens for the benefit of those in power.

Even among Alabama lawmakers and policy groups, the tendency to embrace “alternative facts” and “fake news” is problematic. This fluid situation has made fact-based, evidence-driven policies more essential than ever as substandard or deliberately false information leads to harmful and sometimes fatal outcomes.

Therefore, it is time for an independent think tank that works to address the state’s unique needs with ideas that arise from the state’s distinctive character and abilities.

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Policy groups come in all shapes, sizes, and political leaning. Most notable, The Heritage Foundation and Brookings Institution are broadly representative of the conservative and progressive wings of nationally recognized institutions.

The Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973, is an ideologically conservative institution that owes much of its rise to prominence for the role it played in shaping the conservative movement during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

The Brookings Institution, established in 1916, is a progressive-leaning organization and has contributed to the creation of the United Nations, the Congressional Budget Office, the Marshall Plan, and various other institutional policies.

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A more recent group is the Bipartisan Policy Center, founded in 2007, by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole, and George Mitchell. BPC says it actively works to address critical national issues while promoting bipartisanship.

There are nearly 2000 national and state policy institutes, but Heritage, Brookings and BPC represent an ideological mix.

In today’s world of both politics and policy, beyond the ideological spectrum is a one-size-fits-all groupthink that ignores the fact that while there are similarities between states, there are also many differences.

While Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama may share some common political ideology, its needs, goals and individual priorities vary.

Can Alabama learn from other states? Indeed, but a wholesale adoption of one state’s solution to another state’s problems disregards the governments’ individual nature.

Alabama’s 1901 Constitution and its two separate budget tracks present extraordinary challenges when formulating paths for governing.

The Republic’s founders understood that each state is its own entity, which is why we have a representative government. This exceptional form of government acknowledges the Republic’s abundant diversity, giving each state its independence.

Our country has a long tradition of private rather than public funding for think tanks, which has contributed to a better understanding of public policy and a better market place for robust ideas.

Alabama is currently home to three different policy organizations with distinct objectives.

Mises Institute, located in Auburn, is a world-respected organization that “exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian school of economics, and individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard.”

Birmingham-based Public Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) prides itself as Alabama’s first and only independent research center. Its mission is to inform and improve the decision making of state and local leaders in Alabama through objective research and analysis. PARCA’s studies center on “state and local finances and taxes, school performance, workforce development, and government operations.”

The Alabama Policy Institute, also located in Birmingham, says that it “is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to strengthening free enterprise, defending limited government, and championing strong families.”

Of the three, API is the most political and is far-right leaning in its research and advocacy.

According to public IRS filings, operating expenses for the three groups range from around $800,000 annually for API and PARCA to over $4 million for Mises.

While these institutions play a role, lobbyists and special interests hold more significant sway over state policy, spending millions more than these think tanks could ever raise.

Public policy shouldn’t be determined entirely by private interests any more than the government should dictate every aspect of private enterprise.

Policymaking should be “a goal-driven decision-making process,” which reserves “a great deal of autonomy” in how an organization carries out its work,” according to Thei Geurts in his book Public Policy Making – the 21st Century Perspective.

Lastly, sound public policy should be stakeholder-driven— the people and not a tool to reward a few. It must be fair, honest and address the most pressing immediate needs, with an eye to the future.

In other words, Alabama solutions for Alabama problems.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Auburn Creed must be more than lip service. It’s time to remove Mike Hubbard’s name

Hubbard didn’t believe in obedience to the law, and that his name adorns a facility at Auburn University sends a resounding message that not all lawbreakers are treated equally.

Bill Britt

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The Hubbard Center For Advanced Science, Innovation, and Commerce at Auburn University.

Former Republican Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard is a convicted felon with no possibility of a further appeal before Alabama courts. Still, his name appears on the Hubbard Center For Advanced Science, Innovation and Commerce at Auburn University.

Hubbard did not attend Auburn, and he did not personally contribute to funding the facility. Besides helping to secure money from then-President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Hubbard gave nothing to the building that bears his name.

He is scheduled to turn himself in to the Department of Corrections in the next two weeks, yet Auburn students and faculty attend classes and teach in a building named for a criminal.

The first verse of the Auburn Creed reads, “I believe that this is a practical world and that I can count only on what I earn. Therefore, I believe in work, hard work.”

Hubbard used his elected office to illegally take millions of dollars, not from hard work, as the creed denotes, but from illegal acts.

The Auburn Creed

I believe that this is a practical world and that I can count only on what I earn. Therefore, I believe in work, hard work.

I believe in education, which gives me the knowledge to work wisely and trains my mind and my hands to work skillfully.

I believe in honesty and truthfulness, without which I cannot win the respect and confidence of my fellow men.

I believe in a sound mind, in a sound body and a spirit that is not afraid, and in clean sports that develop these qualities.

I believe in obedience to law because it protects the rights of all.

I believe in the human touch, which cultivates sympathy with my fellow men and mutual helpfulness and brings happiness for all.

I believe in my Country, because it is a land of freedom and because it is my own home, and that I can best serve that country by "doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with my God."

And because Auburn men and women believe in these things, I believe in Auburn and love it.

-George Petrie (1943)

Another verse states, “I believe in honesty and truthfulness, without which I cannot win the respect and confidence of my fellow men.”

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Hubbard lied to his House colleagues, the governor, and other officials. He cheated businesses and betrayed Alabama’s people.

He never lived by even a portion of the Auburn Creed, but somehow a building is named in his honor.

The Mike Hubbard Center was dedicated on September 13, 2013, while Hubbard was under investigation by the Alabama Attorney General’s Office.

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He was indicted a year later in September 2014, for criminal violations of the very ethics laws he championed and passed.

“I believe in obedience to law because it protects the rights of all,” is another passage from the creed.

Hubbard didn’t believe in obedience to the law, and that his name adorns a facility at Auburn University sends a resounding message that not all lawbreakers are treated equally.

It is long past time that Hubbard’s name should be stricken from Auburn University to serve as a reminder that the Auburn Creed is more than lip service but words to live by every day.

 

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