The second regular legislative session of the quadrennium ended a few months ago with a plethora of legislation. It was not quite as prolific as last year, but pretty close. However, it was just as conservative as the first. This group may not be deliberative but they are very focused, efficient, and productive.
Gov. Bentley does not appear to be leading the parade. Mike Hubbard and Del Marsh are the ringleaders. They call the shots in the House and Senate. Bentley is generally on the same page and serves primarily as a cheerleader for the show.
This is not your old-timey George Wallace rodeo. Wallace called all of the plays in the Legislature from his office on the first floor of the Capitol. He would call the House and Senate Rules Committee Chairmen down to his office every morning to give them the playbook. They would dance to whatever tune the “Fighting Little Judge” would call.
This group is a far cry from the Wallace heyday. A new circus is in town. A new party is wearing the crown and the governor is irrelevant in their locomotive machinations. Any Democrats who get in the way become road kill.
However, with all of the flurry of legislative action and the flexing of their muscle the Legislature was left out of probably one of the most significant political coups of the year. In March, Gov. Bentley used his power to borrow between $250 and $300 million to repair highways and bridges statewide. Roads have been a powerful political tool used by governors forever.
Bentley has the power to issue GARVEE, the Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle’s bond program, which pledges federal highway grants anticipated in future years to repay borrowed money. The governor did not need legislative approval to proceed with this major road program.
Bentley will have the final say on which projects get approved for bond money. The first projects are expected to begin this summer or by fall. Bentley says, “We cannot ignore the conditions of our infrastructure.” Indeed our roads and bridges are in bad shape. School buses have to be detoured from an estimated 200 bridges a day for safety purposes. The state has some 59,000 miles of roads and 8650 bridges, most of which need some type of upgrade or maintenance. Bentley views the GARVEE bond program as a way to “fix what we have.” Therefore, the General Fund may be broke and we may be laying off tons of state workers but we are going to have a road program.
As a young legislator I recall George Wallace summoning us down to his office and saying, “When I was a legislator I had a road program.” Wallace would tell us we needed a road program. He made it clear to us that if we voted for a gas tax for a road program that our road program would be a part of his road program. Roads were definitely an ace in the hole for the governor. Wallace would use and hold that anvil over our heads for four years.
I recall a somewhat amusing scenario during Wallace’s last years as governor. He was having to take an enormous amount of medication for the constant pain he suffered as a result of bullet wounds he sustained in the assassination attempt in Maryland in 1972. Some days he was not as coherent as others. One day he summoned some of us who were not voting for his latest tax, a gas tax increase for roads. He zeroed in on Rep. Noopie Cosby of Selma who had not voted for any of his revenue enhancement measures. He continued to cajole Noopie to get a road program. He specifically was interested in a certain highway from Selma to Montgomery that needed a lot of work. Wallace continuously called Noopie “Nudie” in his discourse. He explained to “Nudie” that if he voted for his tax that “Nudie’s” road program would be his road program.
Bentley says, “I’m not picking and choosing any roads for political reasons.” That will probably be true in Bentley’s case. The governor is somewhat unpolitical. His unwavering commitment of striving to do the right thing and his lack of political motivation could be an albatross as he eyes re-election in 2014.
He will more than likely steer projects to where they are most needed. However, you can bet your bottom dollar that Tuscaloosa will not be left out.
See you next week.