In The Statehouse
October 7, 2015:
In 1986 Richard Shelby was a 50-year-old congressman from Tuscaloosa. He was elected to congress eight years earlier, after two successful four-year terms in the Alabama State Senate. However, Shelby was ready to move up again. He was planning to run for the United States Senate.
Shelby had never lost a political race. He was six for six in races to represent his beloved Tuscaloosa and the people of West Alabama. He was a conservative Democrat, who had a stellar conservative voting record. He was safe in his U.S. House seat. In fact, it appeared that the congressional seat was his for life. His decision to challenge an incumbent U.S. Senator was a gamble.
Shelby’s friends cautioned him that a race for the U.S. Senate against an incumbent would be an uphill battle and he should not risk his safe congressional seat. However, Shelby was undeterred in his decision.
One factor that the average political observer was not aware of was that Shelby probably sensed that his congressional district was destined to be the first African American district after reapportionment in 1990. The tea leaves were correct. That is what happened to Shelby’s 7th district.
Although it would be a daunting task to upset an incumbent U.S. Senator, Jeremiah Denton had written the book on how to lose a Senate seat during his six-year term. Denton was elected as Alabama’s first Republican senator since Reconstruction in 1980. He had been swept into office on the coattails of Ronald Reagan, who carried Alabama in a landslide. Alabamians knew very little about Denton, except that he had been a naval officer and a well-known national POW in the Vietnam War. His patriotic POW position sold well in Alabama, especially with Reagan headed to the White House.
Denton let it be known early that he wanted to be the moral police chief of the U.S. Senate. He clearly wanted to be the point man and most ardent voice for morality, chastity and anti-abortion issues. He was not interested in bringing home any bacon for Alabama or fixing any potholes. He actually bragged that he was a national U.S. Senator and not an Alabama U.S. Senator, thus openly signaling that we would only have one U.S. Senator, Howell Heflin, to fight for our interests in Washington.
The examples of constituent neglect and disinterest by Denton are too numerous to recant, but a few examples will give you an idea of his cavalier attitude toward reelection. Each year the Alabama Farmers Federation sends an entourage of 200 to 300 of the most prominent farmers in the state to meet with and lobby their senators and congressmen on federal issues affecting farmers. These men are the most respected leaders and centers of influence in their counties. Heflin and the other congressmen literally met them at the airport to court them. They would have breakfast and dinner with them.
However, these farmers had to have an appointment with our “National Senator” Denton. They arrived at his office at the appointed time. All 300 of them were kept waiting 2 1/2 hours, then an aide came out to tell them that Denton was too busy dealing with national issues and did not have time to meet with them. One of the wealthiest and most prominent men in the state called Denton six times to simply express his opinion on an issue. Denton is yet to call him back. Thus, he vowed to give Denton’s opponent all the money he needed to beat Denton.
In addition to not returning phone calls, Denton never answered letters from constituents, even heartfelt handwritten notes of interest on federal legislation. He was basically considered a nut in Washington and was consistently ranked the most ineffective senator in the 100-member Senate. He made colossal blunders in the 1986 campaign. He said he was too busy to come home and campaign and kiss babies.
Shelby beat Denton but it was close. Shelby had to spend some of his personal money the last week of the campaign to carry out the upset. Alabama has been the better for Richard Shelby’s 1986 gamble. He has been our Senator for 30 years, having been reelected in 1992, 1998, 2004, and 2010. He will be easily reelected to a 6th six-year term next year.
September 30, 2015:
The State of Alabama fiscal year begins this week and we finally have a budget for the year. Constitutionally, the only mandatory requirement that the Legislature has each year in their legislative session is to pass the budgets. The Education budget was approved during the four month Regular Session, but it was uncertain if we would have a budget for the beleaguered General Fund.
Gov. Robert Bentley called a Special Session in early summer to pass a budget. However, despite costing taxpayers around $400,000, there was still no budget. Therefore, the Governor called yet another Special Session for September. The third time was a charm. A budget was passed with only two weeks to go until the fiscal year begins this Thursday.
It is uncertain what would have happened if the legislature had failed on their third try. Most people assumed the state would have simply closed down. The Governor and Legislature avoided a total shut down of State government. However, most state agencies and most state workers would argue that the recently passed budget partially shuts down state operations.
It is indeed a patched together, barebones budget. The $1.7 billion General Fund Budget level funds the major departments of Medicaid, Corrections, Mental Health, Human Resources, Pardons and Paroles and the Court system. Most other State agencies saw cuts of between 5 to 10 percent from last year’s budget.
In the end, the legislature cobbled a budget together by taking $80 million dollars out of the Education coffers and also passing a 25 cents per pack increase on cigarettes, which will raise another $70 million dollars. Therefore, the General Fund is receiving around $150 million in additional funding.
Governor Robert Bentley began the year proposing a hodge podge of tax increases totaling $720 million dollars of new money for the General Fund. He later pared that down to $540 million dollars in proposals. The Legislature quickly and decisively made it clear to our old doctor governor that they were real Republicans and they did not want any part of new tax revenue. They sent Bentley a message that they adhered to the cardinal Rule of Republicanism, “No New Taxes.” It also was made apparent to the administration that the Governor might propose, but the Legislature disposes when it comes to appropriating state dollars.
In the end, however, the Legislature did adopt $150 million of the $540 million proposed by the Governor in February. As the final Special Session began, it was generally bounced about that $200 million dollars was the amount needed to keep state government at least afloat for another year. Even though the large agencies like Medicaid and Prisons were level funded, they said rising costs could still affect basic services. This budget keeps prison capacity in the state at 200 percent. The Federal Courts took over California prisons at less than 150 percent of capacity.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management was emaciated. Its budget was reduced from $1.2 million to $280,000, a 77 percent cut. Their director indicated that they would make up their deficit by raising fees on permits by 20 percent.
The Department of Senior Services and the Attorney General’s office were especially hit hard. Most insiders believe the Attorney General’s budget has been targeted the past two years because Attorney General Luther Strange’s office is prosecuting House Speaker Mike Hubbard.
The real loser in the General Fund battle is public education. For over three decades, from the 1970’s to 1990’s, education dollars were sacred. Dr. Paul Hubbert and his AEA were so powerful and dominant that he would have never allowed the Legislature to rob $80 million from the educators to balance the General Fund Budget.
When the Republicans took control of the Legislature in 2010, they made it their mission to dismantle and destroy the AEA. They accomplished their mission in four short years. Therefore, it was an easy prey to simply take education money to resolve this year’s dilemma.
This budget is only a short term fix. There were no long term solutions addressed. The General Fund Budget will need another transfusion next year, but for now the legislature has found an easy solution – just take it from education. The AEA has no political clout or power anymore. In fact, the AEA has been so decimated they do not even have a PAC.
Let the fiscal year begin. The next Regular Session is only four months away.
See Steve Flowers interview Loretta Grant and Sam Adams at https://youtu.be/POdSQqQRhHk