Thursday, January 30, 2014

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse: The politics of roads

  It seemed to go under the radar last year, but the Bentley administration quietly inaugurated the largest road-building program seen in the state in over six decades.

  Gov. Bentley launched the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program (ATRIP). The ATRIP program, coupled with another road program, the Rural Assistance Match Program, will bring the total for road and bridge construction in Bentley’s first term to well over $1 billion.

  This probably makes Bentley’s road program the largest since Gov. James E. "Big Jim" Folsom’s famous Farm to Market road program in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Big Jim’s Farm to Market road program was his greatest legacy. Folks in rural Alabama still talk about Big Jim’s roads today.

  Bentley designed his road program to come to fruition and have the greatest political impact while he was running for governor this year. It appears that he will have smooth sailing and will not need the ATRIP program to propel him to victory.

  Under ATRIP the state borrows 80% of the cost of each project through what are called Grant Acquisition Revenue Vehicle bonds (GARVEE). It allows the state to borrow against future federal highway grants at an interest rate of 2.6%. Local cities and counties are required to make a 20% match, except in the rural counties that cannot afford to match state funds. For these poorer counties, matching funds are provided under the Rural Assistance Match program.

  Mayors and county commissioners throughout the state have made hay with Bentley’s road program. The governor has endeared himself to these local officials. Roads are near and dear to the hearts of mayors, city councilors and especially county commissioners. In fact, roads have been an integral part of political patronage in state politics for years. In my early legislative years, the governor would entice legislators to vote for his programs by holding the lure of a particular road project important to a legislator over the head of that legislator like a carrot over the head of a rabbit.

  This discussion of road programs reminds me of a humorous story that occurred during the Wallace years.

  The year was 1983. George Wallace was beginning his fourth and final term as governor. As you know, Wallace had been shot numerous times by a crazed would be assassin in 1972 in a Maryland parking lot while running for president. Wallace miraculously survived that assassination attempt but was left paralyzed and in constant pain. He had to take medication to alleviate the pain so some days he was not quite cognizant.

  However, Wallace was determined to remedy the shortfall he inherited in the state coffers. His solution was to raise taxes. He called them revenue enhancement measures. I called it a tax-a-day club.

  Wallace made me one of his floor leaders in the House. Therefore, I felt duty bound to vote for his revenue enhancement measures. My seatmate and new best friend was a gentleman from Talladega named Jim Preuitt. Jim and I were the only two freshman floor leaders. We dutifully toed the line on the first six revenue enhancement measures but then the Wallace team came with a biggie. It was a substantial gasoline tax for road improvement. I told Jim, "I’m falling off the wagon here. I can’t have a record of voting for every tax that comes down the pike."

  The governor had earned a vaunted reputation through the years for cajoling reluctant legislators to his side of an issue by calling them down to the governor’s office in small groups and enticing them with plum projects for their districts, usually a road. Wallace was on his game for this road tax vote. Therefore, those of us who had indicated our reluctance were called down to the governor’s office to be hot boxed.

  Preuitt and I were in a group of real naysayers to Wallace’s taxes. Wallace looked over as though he was surprised to see us. He then zeroed in on Rep. Noopie Cosby from Selma. Noopie had not voted for any of Wallace’s revenue enhancement measures and he was not planning on breaking his streak with Wallace’s gas tax.

  Noopie has gone by this name since childhood but Wallace immediately addressed Noopie as "Nudie." He began, "Nudie, when I was a young legislator I had a road program. So Nudie, you need you a road program and, you see Nudie, if you vote for the gas tax then your road program will be part of my road program. But Nudie, if you don’t vote for my gas tax then I’m afraid your road program will not be part of my road program." Wallace explained politics to Nudie that day.

  See you next week.

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in more than 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at

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