Short and sweet



By Steve Flowers

The 2018 legislative session will be short and sweet.  It is an election year.  Historically, during the last year of a quadrennium, the legislature convenes early and passes the budgets, then goes home and campaigns for reelection to another four year term.

Our forefathers, who wrote our 1901 Constitution must have been thinking the same thing because they designed for the fourth year of the quadrennium legislative session to start and end early. It is set by law to begin in early January, whereas it begins in February in most years.  This year’s session began January 9 and can run through April 23.  The consensus is that they will adjourn sine die earlier than the April deadline.  Most observers believe that they will pass the budgets and be out of Montgomery by the end of March and home campaigning by April Fools’ Day.

The budgets will not be hard.  The economy has picked up and the education budget, which is reliant on sales and income tax, is flush.  Even the beleaguered General Fund is not in dire straits.

The House budget chairmen, Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, and Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, walk around with a smile on their face.

The Senate budget chairmen, Trip Pittman, R-Baldwin and Arthur Orr, R-Decatur also seem happy.  Pittman is a giant of a man who probably stands 6’8” tall and Orr is somewhat short.  When they stand next to each other they look like Mutt and Jeff.  It reminds me of a picture made in the 1950’s with Governor Big Jim Folsom and Congressman Frank Boykin standing next to each other.  Boykin was extremely short and portly.  He was around 5’2”.  Big Jim was about 6’9”.  It was quite an amazing photo taken at Boykins hunting lodge north of Mobile in Washington County.  Both Big Jim and Boykin were inebriated.  In defense of Pittman and Orr, they are both sober and serious about their business and do a good job.

Pittman has decided to stick to a campaign pledge he made when he first ran to serve only two terms, so he is not running again.

The other three budget chairmen are running and will be easily reelected if they even have opposition.  Arthur Orr, Steve Clouse, and Bill Poole will all return to the legislature and will more than likely chair their chamber’s budget committees for another four years.  All four of these budget leaders are smart and articulate.  Clouse, Pittman and Poole all went to the University of Alabama for their college education.

These four chairmen write and control the budgets.  In fact, most of the major decisions affecting the budgets are dictated by the chairmen. Most legislators do not really know the intricate details in the numbers.  After the budgets come out of conference committee late in the session, it is “Katie bar the door.”  They are ready to vote yes and go home.

However, there will be significant turnover in both chambers next year.  There are about 10 of the 35 state senate seats open due to retirement or seeking other offices.  There will be close to 22 of the 105 House of Representatives seats open.  That is a significant turnover but it is not record breaking. Furthermore, almost all of the major leaders and decision makers in the legislature will be back for another four years in their same leadership positions.

The best action in senate races this year may be in the Montgomery/River Region area.  Popular state Senator, Dick Brewbaker, chose to not seek reelection.  There will be a spirited sprint to replace him.  Also in Montgomery County, State Senator Quinton Ross was chosen to be President of Alabama State University. Veteran State Representative John Knight is favored to take that seat.

The primaries are June 5.  I will keep you posted.

Let’s be vigilant about freedom of the press

By Steve Flowers
I have written about the legendary capitol reporters who use to cover Goat Hill.  There was Bob Ingram of the Montgomery Advertiser, Al Fox of the Birmingham News, Hugh Sparrow of the Birmingham News, Rex Thomas of the Associated Press, Don Martin of UPI and Clarke Stallworth of the Birmingham Post Herald.  A young cub reporter named Jim Bennett joined the Post Herald in 1961 and later had a distinguished career in Public Service.  None of these legends is any longer with us.
   Today’s capitol press corps also works hard, they stick with “just the facts” by conscientious research of their stories and leave out the speculations, “what-ifs”, opinion and political slants.
   The men and women I knew in the Montgomery press corps then and today, may have personal views, but they all were and are vigilant in their work as professional journalists.  They defended the freedom of the press and the right of the public to know the facts and events of public officials, their decisions and actions that will impact education, taxes and the economy.
   Over the last few years, an ongoing debate has emerged as to whether reporting on political news is still just the responsibility of professional journalists and whether online bloggers can be a trusted source of news reporting.
   The contemporary capitol press corps, like their colleagues of a bygone era, work hard to meet their deadlines.  These professional reporters put in long hours by getting evenhanded quotes, verify pertinent facts and simply report an issue, controversy, or an event in an evenhanded way.
   Online bloggers will do the same but add twists of innuendo, supposed behind the scenes reasons, and anonymous inferences.  Often the online ‘journalists’ story will present a story but give contorted extraneous, often incendiary, perspectives which have no basis in reality.
   Some suggest this is done to enhance the number of online “clicks”, make the story more salacious, attack someone’s reputation either directly or indirectly, make it cynical and infer insider deals and corruption – and you will get your clicks!
   In many cases, stories are published by journalists only to be later “reinterpreted” by online bloggers with an editorial or political agenda.
   Because of the cynicism and negativity that this new 24/7 online blogging creates, I have heard of many good men and women who would otherwise wish to give back to their communities by serving in public office essentially say – no thanks!  They have spent a lifetime building up a good reputation in their communities and businesses.  They cannot imagine where a pseudo-journalist, who is trying to build their reputation by the number of online clicks they get, can get away with attacking someone’s reputation in such a careless way.
    We must make sure that individuals get the news and information they need to be informed, responsible citizens.  Those sources can be from journalists, bloggers, and other digital platforms.
   Let’s be vigilant about the freedom of press whether it is old fashion, hard-nosed journalism or 24/7 blogging.  However, let’s also clearly delineate whether it is political opinion and gotcha stories whose sole purpose is to tarnish reputations and add to further public alienation from politics and cynicism.  Opinions are great and important to public discourse but see them for what they are – opinions of one – do not try to mask those as ‘facts’.
   Recently, the Alabama Political Reporter brought the documentary, “Atticus and the Architect”, to the Davis Theatre in Montgomery.  A packed house watched the story of former governor, Don Siegelman’s persecution. The film left no doubt that Siegelman was prosecuted for political reasons.
   Siegelman spent close to ten years in prison, unduly.  It is one of the saddest stories I have witnessed in my lifetime of following Alabama politics.  The travesty has not gone unnoticed by young potential leaders in the state.
   I have the opportunity to get to know some brilliant, young Alabamians in my University classes on Alabama and Southern politics.  Many of them are political science and prelaw majors.  I will inquire as to whether they are interested in pursuing a political career.  Most will tell me that they would never seek political office, not even a judgeship.  Invariably, they will point to the Siegelman prosecution as one of their reasons for not being a part of the political process.  They realize that their lives could be ruined by political persecution.

Shelby may be our greatest senator ever

By Steve Flowers
A few weeks back my column illuminated the career and influence attained by our senior U.S. Senator Richard Shelby.  In the column and in my book, “Six Decades of Alabama Political Stories,” I reference the fact that our current senior senator will be regarded as one of Alabama’s greatest U.S. Senators.  I consider Lister Hill, John Sparkman, and Richard Shelby in that triumvirate.  However, history more than likely will reveal that Shelby is eclipsing Hill and Sparkman in the annals of senatorial lore.
   Shelby is chairman of the Senate Rules Committee.  In his illustrious 31-year tenure in the Senate he has chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Banking Committee, which in itself parallels the achievements of Hill and Sparkman.  However, Richard Shelby is next in line to take over the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
   Therefore, it is almost comical that a few right-wing fringe members of the state Republican Party along with some kook from Texas are promising some resolution to censure Senator Shelby for not voting for Roy Moore in last year’s election.  If these folks had even walking around political sense they would be promoting a ticker tape parade for Shelby.
   I would suggest that Richard Shelby could care less what some members of the Alabama Republican Party say about his vote in the recent election.  Members of political party organizations have an inflated opinion of their influence in politics and public policy.  Being a member of a state political party has no more effect on politics than being president of the local Civitan Club.  Their primary function is to set the Primary dates.
   Therefore, when these political party operatives get together to debate this benign resolution on February 24, they may imagine that it matters what they do.  However, you can be assured that nobody cares, much less Shelby.  Resolutions passed in political party gatherings have no effect or relevance.
   It is very doubtful that this proposed resolution will see the light of day.  Most people who are political party operatives are logical folks and would not want to offend or insult Senator Shelby.  He is the Republican Party of Alabama in the eyes of the nation.  If it were to pass, he would graciously ignore it and hold no grudges.
   When Kay Ivey became governor last year, the first thing she did was to reverse the decision of Governor Robert Bentley on the date of the election for Jeff Sessions’ senate seat.  Bentley had set it for this year when everything runs anyway.  Ivey decided that it should be held forthwith and that a Special Election would be in 2017. However, this Special Election costs the beleaguered State General Fund $11 million.  If it were held this year it would have cost the state zero – we were voting anyway.
   This $11 million is nothing to sneeze at when it comes to state revenue.  This aspect caught the eye of House Ways and Means chairman, Steve Clouse, R-Ozark. Clouse, who is a wise steward of the state’s coffers, and is tasked with balancing the budget, has set out to rectify and clarify when any future election for a Senate Seat shall be held.  He has offered a bill to set the dates and clarify “forthwith.”  Clouse’s Bill says that the election will be held at the next General election.  His legislation has already passed the House and is awaiting action in the State Senate.
   Steve Clouse is a popular Wiregrass legislator who epitomizes integrity and espouses fiscal conservatism. While speaking of popularity in the Wiregrass, Governor Kay Ivey did a good day’s work when she picked Dothan Circuit Judge, Brad Mendheim, to fill the vacancy on the State Supreme Court.  It is appropriate that she appointed Mendheim, a Wiregrass judge, to fill the seat of Justice Glen Murdock, another Wiregrass native.
   I have never seen or heard of anybody more respected in their hometown than 51-year-old Brad Mendheim is in Dothan.  He was born and raised in Houston County and has been a Circuit Judge for 10 years.  He is a deacon in the First Baptist Church of Dothan.  He graduated in a stellar class that included Dr. Russ Holman, who is one of the most prominent radiologist in the state.