It isn’t often that legislators in Montgomery are universally in agreement on anything. But this week it happened, twice.
First, legislators in the State House of Representatives agreed by a vote of 92-2 to kill the budget that had passed earlier in the year. Additionally, everyone agreed that this legislative session has been a complete failure and waste of more than $400,000 in taxpayer money – no budget was passed, and no agreement was reached on how to move forward.
The session was doomed before it began. Gov. Robert Bentley said after the special session ended that his “level of trust (with legislators) had declined.” But it was Gov. Bentley who called the special session in mid-July after he had committed to not call it before mid-August. In his own words, he chose to use the “element of surprise” against legislators. His tactics not only created tension between him and legislators, they were also premature; legislators were clearly not ready to come back.
But the distrust and tension was not just with the governor. There are clearly deep divisions in the legislature. Some of those divisions are between the House and Senate leadership, some of them are between Republicans in general (those who are willing to raise taxes and those who aren’t) and some have been between Democrats and Republicans.
I’m not going to comment on the internal workings of the Republican Caucus or the divisions between the Republican leadership in the House and Senate. Those divisions were obvious to everyone before the session was called, however, and would have been enough reason not to call the session until later.
But I can speak to the differences between the Democrats and Republicans.
Over a month ago, Democrats made it known that we would not support any tax increases unless the Republican leadership allowed a vote on the lottery and the governor expanded Medicaid.
For the last five years, I personally have offered a lottery bill, and both the lottery and Medicaid expansion have been a part of the Democrats platform. Had a lottery bill been passed last year, we would have already seen income from it and would not be talking about raising taxes this year. But the Republican leadership refused to let the lottery come up for a vote.
But it’s not just the creation of a lottery that Republicans have blocked in the last five years. Republican leadership repeatedly has used the legislative rules to shut down debate and force legislation through without letting Democrats have any input.
The budget crisis didn’t start this year. It’s been decades in the making, coming to a head in 2012. That year, Democrats bailed Republicans out by giving them votes they needed to pass legislation that allowed them to borrow $437 million from the state’s savings account to avoid this crisis. Despite being run over in the legislature, Democrats and the voters of Alabama essentially bailed the Republicans out and gave the Republican leadership a three-year extension to figure out a solution to this budget crisis.
But the Republicans didn’t prepare; they didn’t even talk about the crisis until after the election. Then, after running over Democrats in the legislature, ignoring our legislative priorities and spending decades calling Democrats a bunch of “tax-and-spend liberals,” they just assumed Democrats would go along with their plan to raise taxes.
I guess they just figured, despite what Democrats have said very clearly and very publicly, we would automatically vote to raise taxes and the Republicans could keep blaming the tax increases on those “tax-and-spend liberal Democrats.”
Democrats believe in adequately funding government; what we don’t believe in is raising taxes just for the heck of it. We certainly aren’t going to vote to raise taxes if the Republican leadership is just going to blame Democrats for raising taxes and continue not to address the real problems; which is exactly what they did after the last time we voted to bail them out in 2012.
The Republican leadership knows it cannot pass any tax increases without Democrats support, and Gov. Bentley won’t sign a budget that doesn’t include tax increases. That means Republicans are going to have to work with Democrats and include some of our solutions in the plan to solve this crisis.
But before Democrats will vote for any kind of tax increase, the Republicans will have to pass a lottery and protect our hospitals and nursing homes, especially in rural areas by expanding Medicaid. And Democrats won’t support a plan to take money out of the education budget unless a plan is first passed to replace every cent they take out.
There is a path forward, but Democrats and Republicans will have to walk it together.
Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden and the Minority Leader in the Alabama House of Representatives.