Mid-year look reveals eventful first half of 2017
As we take a mid-year look at Alabama politics, it has been an eventful first half of the year.
It is not every year that a governor resigns mid-term. Governor Robert Bentley’s resignation from office on April 10 will more than likely be the most newsworthy story of the year.
Bentley’s saga had begun 18 months ago. His troubles stemmed from his relationship with his primary and probably only advisor, who was married to a quiet man whom Bentley placed in a vague $90,000 position with the state. It was a titillating story that led to an investigation and later finding by the State Ethics Commission that there was reasonable evidence that Bentley may have violated the law. Facing probable impeachment by the Legislature, Bentley resigned in disgrace.
The most noteworthy event was the appointment of our Junior U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions to the powerful post of U.S. Attorney General. Sessions was one of President Donald Trump’s first Cabinet appointments.
Sessions departure from the Senate seat left open his coveted post. In his waning days as governor, Bentley interviewed about 20 qualified candidates for the interim appointment. Bentley eventually appointed Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, a worthy choice.
However, the appointment of Strange caused tremendous furor among Alabamians. A few months earlier, Strange stated he was investigating the Governor. The appointment of the Attorney General to the seat had the appearance of a brazen act of collusion between the Governor and Strange.
Bentley resigned a month later and Strange went to Washington. Upon the resignation of Bentley, Lt. Governor, Kay Ivey, became the second female governor in state history. Ironically, Kay was a stalwart supporter and worked for our only other female governor, Lurleen Wallace, when she was in college over 50 years ago.
Governor Kay Ivey has shown calm, deliberative and wise leadership in her first three months as governor. She has done a good job and steadily stuck to her knitting governing, rather than cutting ribbons. She inherited the ship of state in the middle of a legislative session. She stayed in close contact with the Senate leadership and brought the session to a successful landing.
The legislative session could indeed be considered a success. Mac McCutcheon, a Republican Representative from Madison County, led his first regular session as Speaker. McCutcheon is level headed and a natural facilitator. He is a retired police officer from Huntsville, who worked as a hostage negotiator. He seems fair and runs a more open and egalitarian House than former Speaker Mike Hubbard.
Any legislative session could be considered successful when both budgets are passed. The $1.8 billion General Fund budget passed early due to a onetime influx of $105 million from the BP oil spill settlement. The beleaguered General Fund will be much harder to balance next year, which will be an election year. For the eighth straight year, state workers got no increase in pay.
Even though the Education Trust Fund budget grew by $ 90 million, teachers also get no pay increase. The $6.4 billion Education budget did include a 20 percent increase in pre-kindergarten funding.
The Legislature abolished judicial override in death penalty cases, voted to require insurers to extend coverage to autism therapies, and ended the ban on midwifery in Alabama.
They chose not to address the prison overcrowding issue. However, this may be a prudent call. It may be wiser to wait until the federal courts decree what they want from the state. This could be a paramount issue that requires a Special Session.
The Republican majority ramrodded a reapportionment plan through the Senate and House over adamant disapproval of black Democrats. The final authority on whether it will stand rests with the federal courts. Until this is decided, there is a cloud over the upcoming legislative races. Republican legislators may have overplayed their hand this time. A federal judge may send Alabama’s demographics to a computer in New York to draw the lines and several of them may find themselves in the same districts several counties away.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.