Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Steve Flowers: Inside The Statehouse: The Future of the Alabama Legislature

  The new governor, whoever is elected this year, when they enter the governor’s office in January of 2011 will be walking onto the deck of the Titanic. Never in my lifetime, nor most of yours, have we witnessed the likes of the horrific dilemma the new governor will face when he takes over the reigns of state government. However, this spring as I sat observing the Alabama Legislature it became obvious that the governor will not be alone. The legislature will be an equal partner in the impending disaster. They also will be facing the tsunami with the new administration.

  The chaos and discord in the senate has rendered them more like a sideshow in a circus than a legislative body. They have been rudderless for the entire quadrennium and will probably remain so for the next four years. The lieutenant governor, who was the leader of the senate for a century, has been removed from power and the senators are left to run the asylum. The lieutenant governor presides but the power of the gavel has been diminished and the job is meaningless.

  The senate will wind up being close to a 50/50 partisanship gridlock. It will be deadlocked with the possibility of the Republicans being in the majority. These Republicans have never been in a leadership position. Instead, these GOP senators have been the loyal opposition their entire careers. They have spent their entire tenure throwing bombs, putting up roadblocks and being against everything. They have never been in a position to solve problems. They may be in charge but they will be facing tough veteran skilled Democratic adversaries. They may be the majority but they may not be in control. They will be outmaneuvered and outfoxed at every turn. Therefore, you may have a new inexperienced Republican governor and a new ineffective Republican-led senate.

  What about the Alabama House of Representatives? The house has been the steadying force the past four years. They have had a solid Democratic majority and have been led by stable, veteran Speaker Seth Hammett. However, Seth is retiring. Therefore, you will have a new speaker. There will be a tumultuous battle to fill the speaker vacancy. The partisan breakdown will be closer than in the past, probably about 55 to 50. A coalition format may emerge, which will lend itself to a scenario similar to the senate. Seth’s exit opens Pandora’s Box in the previously tranquil and functioning house. This body appears destined for turmoil.

  So the stage is set for a new inexperienced governor, a new transient coalition in the senate, and a new green regime in the house. Folks, I hate to alarm you but if you put these ingredients in a pot to boil along with the financial problems we face, you have the recipe for Armageddon in Alabama government. Let me give you a caveat to remember when the organizing of the house and senate occurs next year, governing is different than organizing.

  Legislative races are usually decided by money and name identification. However, in recent years the choice of legislators has been driven more by partisanship than personality. This has been true in the urban areas for several decades. Most urban voters do not know their representatives or senators personally. They vote for the name they recognize in the party they prefer. Most urban voters now live in enclaves or suburbs that are distinctly Republican or Democrat. The rural or small town districts actually know their legislator and have traditionally voted for the person but this may be changing to some degree.

  One of the most interesting legislative races in the state will be the contest to replace Seth Hammett in his Covington County seat. This seat will be a good weathervane for the partisan makeup of the new house. It is ironic that the retiring speaker’s seat could portend the outcome and future of the legislature. Seth is a conservative Democrat. Some believe that his species is a dying breed. Most observers predict his swing seat goes Republican.

  In parting, Seth’s presence in the house and in the speaker’s chair will be missed. Seth and I sat together for 16 years in the house. Seth passed a lot of bills in his 32 year career. However, his crowning accomplishment may have been his sponsorship of the Jr. College Articulation Act, which allowed for all courses taken in a junior college to be transferable to a four-year school.

  See you next week.

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at

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