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GOP riding high in Alabama

By Hastings Wyman
Southern Political Report

June 1, 2011

Gov. Robert Bentley, a physician and a former legislator, was inaugurated last January and has made an impressive beginning. He has presided over the Republican legislature’s history-making session, the first since 1874 toward the end of Reconstruction, in which the governorship and both legislative chambers are under Republican control, and is signing into law a large number of bills that would have been buried in committee when the Democrats were in charge.

The state Senate has a strong GOP majority, 22 Republicans, 12 Democrats and one independent. The House is also in solid Republican territory:  65R to 40D after a recent Republican-to-Democrat switch.

With Republicans holding these large majorities in both chambers, Democrats have been unable to halt the flood of conservative legislation. The Republicans “are proceeding with the agenda they laid out, though not perfectly… They are doing things that are pretty popular in Alabama, and that weaken the Alabama Education Association,” a mainstay of the Democratic base in the state, notes former US Rep. Glen Browder (D-AL), professor emeritus at Jacksonville State University.

Bentley has had to overcome a couple of early missteps. When he took office, he was $1.97 million in debt to his campaign, which he largely financed himself by taking out a second mortgage on his home and similar measures. By late January, he had repaid himself $1.26 million. His biggest PR misstep was declaring to a church audience that “anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.” Needless to say, the remarks did not travel well.

Nevertheless, the governor and his fellow GOPers are riding high in Montgomery.

“Legislation we’ve been waiting on since the mid-1980s” is now passing, says Marty Connors, a former state GOP chair. “It’s the most productive legislature perhaps ever,” he continues. “Since the election, they’ve passed ethics reform, pension reform, [teacher] tenure reform, immigration and budgetary reform… I’ve never seen as much action.” He notes that the bill requiring a photo ID for voting, which is set to pass, “was first introduced in 1988” and is expected to pass before the legislature adjourns on June 9. (Proponents say it would combat fraud; opponents say it has racial overtones, contending it would have a greater impact on blacks than whites.)

Like newly empowered Republican administrations in other states, especially in the South, the Alabama legislature is also poised to impose significant restrictions on abortion. These include defining a “person” under state law to include a fetus from the moment of conception, blocking state participation in health insurance programs that cover abortions, requiring that abortion patients observe an ultra-sound of the fetus prior to an abortion and requiring doctors to examine a woman in person before prescribing an abortion-inducing drug. The bills must still pass the House and be signed by the governor before becoming law.

The bill making it easier for school boards or administrators to dismiss teachers deemed poor performers has been one of the most controversial. School boards and superintendents backed the measure, teacher groups opposed it. Symptomatic of the disagreement surrounding the measure, last week state Rep. Daniel Boman switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party, a sort of man-bites-dog story in today’s South, complaining about GOP backing for the education reform legislation. Freshman Boman was one of ten GOPers who voted against the measure, although he was the only one to change parties to protest its passage. A similar measure passed last month in Tennessee, where the GOP also won control of the governorship and both legislative chambers.

Another contentious measure would increase from 5 percent to 7.5 percent of their salaries that state employees, including teachers, must pay to help finance their pensions. Also controversial is an anti-illegal immigration bill similar to that passed by Arizona.

Two state budgets, one for education and another for non-education agencies, have already passed both chambers. Bentley is expected to sign the education budget, which funds 1,125 fewer teaching jobs; the current number is 48,165. He may send back the non-education budget for changes, to shift more money from the General Fund to Medicaid.

The legislature adjourns on June 9 and by then most of the GOP-favored bills are expected to pass and get the governor’s signature.

In response, Browder notes that “the Democrats are scratching around for a strategy,” and points out that Mark Kennedy, the new Democratic state chairman (and son-in-law of the late Gov. George Wallace) has come out with a five-point Democratic recovery plan. The third point is “Embrace Obama.” “The Republicans greeted it with glee,” says Browder.







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