As the world turns in state politicsPublished 11:00pm Thursday, May 2, 2013
As the world turns in Alabama politics, the 2013 Legislative Session is in the stretch run. The waning days will see the final passage of the 2014 budgets, which will begin in October.
The most controversial and pivotal issue of the session is the infamous Accountability Act. It has sent the legislative session into an acrimonious partisan stalemate. To recant the scenario, Republicans came forward with a controversial eight-page Education Flexibility Bill, which gave local school boards the option to opt out of strict state educational requirements. However, when the bill went to a conference committee, it grew into a 28-page bill that was completely different. It became a full fledged voucher bill which allows a $3,500 tax credit to parents who choose to send their children to private schools.
Democrats and the teachers union, AEA, claim the bill will destroy public education by diverting the state’s already paltry public education resources to private schools. The Republicans exerted their super majority muscle and ran roughshod over the Democrats and AEA in passing the measure.
Veteran lobbyists and Goat Hill observers have lamented that the overt cavalier stampeding of the minority has caused a deep discord never before seen around the Statehouse. Even the most effervescent and jovial legislators on both sides of the aisle appear subdued, less frivolous and unhappy. A somber cloud has set over the chambers and the losers are the lobbyists. Their pet special interest legislation has fallen victim to the slow down orchestrated by the distraught Democrats.
Another topic of conversation around the Statehouse is the shocking victory of Mobile businessman Bill Hightower to an open senate seat in Mobile. Ben Brooks held the Republican seat but was elected to a Mobile Circuit Court judgeship last year.
Only Republicans ran for the open seat. It was assumed that powerful House member Jim Barton would easily win the open seat special election. Barton amassed and spent over $500,000 to Hightower’s $25,000. Despite being outspent 20 to 1, Hightower beat Barton 64% to 36%.
Lobbyists were stunned. They assumed the financial advantage would assure Barton’s win. However, with only a 9% turnout in a special election, one on one good old fashioned door to door retail politics prevailed over abundant slick television ads. Barton is probably still well known and popular with folks in Pensacola and Biloxi who watch Mobile television. However, Hightower got the most votes in District 35 in Mobile County.
It received a lot of attention in rural Alabama when Chief Justice Roy Moore ordered all circuit clerks’ offices in the state closed every Wednesday beginning March 20. It was his way of dealing with the short fall in funding for the state’s judicial system.
Whatever the final judgment is from the impending BP trial in New Orleans, Alabama will receive a windfall bonanza. The battle has already begun over how and where to spend or save the BP money. Some senators want to use the proceeds to pay back and build back up the Alabama Oil and Gas Trust Fund that they borrowed $437 million from last year. However, coastal area lawmakers argue that the money should go to their areas, which were the most harmed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The Gulf Coast area has some powerful allies on their side. Gov. Robert Bentley and Senate Majority Leader Del Marsh both have stated they believe any dollars paid by BP should go to the coast. There will be a fight over the money because it is a lot of money and it is one time money. State Sen. Trip Pittman who represents Baldwin County and whose district stands to gain the most under the BP bonanza tactfully stated, “There’s a lot of people that are going to look to that money to solve a lot of problems.”
There would have been even more money for Alabama if President Obama had not stepped in and played politics last year. The Obama administration proposed diverting money from the BP fines to a federal agency. Their efforts would give BP funds off the top to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment Fund. Under this proposal, the money would be retained by the federal government and would be spent on restoration of wildlife and habitats.
Under the Obama administration’s efforts to divert money to the Justice Department for ecological preservation, Louisiana and Florida would benefit. Alabama, Texas and Mississippi would lose. This is most likely due to the fact that Louisiana and Florida are the only two southern states with one Democratic senator.
Steve Flowers served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.