It would be easy to think nothing good has happened lately in the world of Alabama politics, and that Montgomery is so mired in corruption and bickering that nothing ever gets done.
After all, the legislative session that just ended began with one governor and ended with a different one; tensions over legislative redistricting and a controversial email slowed its final days to a crawl; and important issues that were left unfinished will most likely lead to a costly special session.
In what may be an historic first, we now have a governor, U.S. senator, chief justice of the state Supreme Court, and a state Attorney General – none of whom were elected to those positions.
But even in light of all of this, the legislature did manage to accomplish a few good things, and to do so with support from both Democrats and Republicans.
On these key issues, the legislature showed what can be done when leaders quit worrying so much about right wing and left wing and spend a little more time worrying about right and wrong.
The most important of these issues was the autism bill.
According to the national Center for Disease Control, one out of every 175 children in Alabama has been diagnosed with some degree of Autism Spectrum Disorder. While treatment is most effective for children between ages two and nine, and coverage for children in this age range was already mandated by law, some children need further treatment going into their teenage years.
But the costs for Applied Behavioral Therapy treatment can be as high as $70,000 a year! So the legislature passed a new law that requires insurance companies to include in their group plans (defined as plans with 51 or more people participating) coverage for the treatment of children up to age 17.
This bill, which Gov. Kay Ivey has now signed into law, will improve the lives of thousands of children and their families. But it also shows what can be done when legislators work together.
Rep. Jim Patterson, R-Meridianville, worked tirelessly on this bill, and he didn’t make it a partisan issue. Rep. Patterson talked with Democrats and Republicans in both chambers of the legislature to come to a compromise that would limit the costs to insurers while still guaranteeing the coverage for our children.
As a result, this bill was passed out of the House with 102 votes in favor and not a single vote against it. In the state Senate, only one senator voted against it.
Another bipartisan success was our education budget. Budget chairman Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, has always worked hard and listened to members of both parties when crafting the education budget. His tireless work has also led to unanimous support in the House for his budgets. And even more impressive is that he’s passed the education budget with unanimous support for three years in a row!
Both of these men have shown what can be accomplished when leaders reach across the aisle and work together instead of turning everything into a partisan issue.
A third major success of this legislative session wasn’t the passing of a bill but the defeat of one.
Having already been passed by the state senate, a bill came to the House of Representatives that would have expanded tax credit options for people who donate to the Accountability Act’s scholarship granting organizations (SGOs). These SGOs, which are privately run, have seen a significant drop in contributions, so this bill was intended to boost their donations by allowing donors to claim additional tax credits.
Of course, more of these tax credits would also mean less money for our schools.
The Accountability Act has been a massive failure from the beginning. Though it was called “school choice” and intended to give children in failing public schools the option of attending non-failing public or private schools, the overwhelming majority of scholarships have gone to kids who were already attending private schools.
Thankfully, legislators on both sides of the aisle rejected this bill in a crushing defeat (by a vote of 59-28) for the Accountability Act.
Though this legislative session was marked by several failures and distractions, there were some victories. And those victories happened because elected officials were more worried about the people than they were about political parties.
While the overall legislative session may have been a dark cloud hanging over the state, these legislative victories are a silver lining and a stark reminder that real leadership comes when legislators quit worrying about right wing and left wing and instead just worry about right and wrong.
Craig Ford represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010 – 2017.