MONTGOMERY — It wasn’t even close. The most hyped political battle of this year’s legislative session sailed through the Alabama House of Representatives by an 83-20 margin.
As of press time, the so-called Rebuild Alabama Act, which will increase what Alabamians pay at the pump by 10 cents by October 2021 and likely increase fuel taxes another penny every two years in perpetuity, awaits consideration by the GOP-controlled Alabama Senate, where it is likely to pass with another supermajority. The bill also includes fees for electric and hybrid vehicles.
The legislation is a curious one, as it does more than just give money to the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) for roads and bridges. Up to $10.2 million will be used to finance the expansion of the Port of Mobile, and charging stations will be furnished by the state for electric and hybrid vehicles.
Beyond those details, two-thirds of the revenue goes to ALDOT, with the remainder divided between counties and municipalities, 25 percent and 8.33 percent, respectively.
Earlier in the debate, we thought the political fight would be between the counties and the municipalities.
“The devil is in the details,” lawmakers would say when asked about support for the legislation before its release earlier this month.
The city/county battle turned out not to be true, as State Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, negotiated an agreement to satisfy the Association of County Commissions of Alabama and the Alabama League of Municipalities (which represent the cities and counties) long before the legislation was released to the public.
Whether or not you agree with the merits of the Rebuild Alabama Act, you must marvel at how Gov. Kay Ivey, the legislation’s chief champion, executed a game plan for the bill’s passage.
If University of Alabama football head coach Nick Saban owns the “Joyless MurderBall” brand (the Crimson Tide’s style of play during their 2018 regular season), Ivey is the proprietor of “Joyless Murder Politics.”
It was a stroke of genius, if not borderline deviousness, for Ivey to call for a special session for infrastructure on the first day of the 2019 session.
By doing so, Ivey does not have to offer her budget proposal until after the special session. By statute, the governor has until the second legislative day of a regular session to submit her budget to the Legislature. Since the special session delayed the regular session by two weeks, the second day will not come until the special session has ended.
Ivey’s decision to hold the special session — thereby delaying her budget proposal deadline — eliminated one of the bargaining chips legislators might have tried to leverage in exchange for their favorable Rebuild Alabama Act votes.
Worth noting as well is that any bill passed in regular session prior to budget passage requires a three-fifths majority. Calling a special session also negated that concern.
Beyond the legislative tactics, behind the scenes, Ivey has been twisting arms and doling out warnings that there could be consequences for legislators who oppose the infrastructure bill.
Several sources say the governor has a whiteboard posted in her office with legislators’ names, accompanied by different color markings — green for those pledging or voting “yes” on the bill; black for unknown, undecided or not voting; and red for those pledging to vote against or voting “no” on the bill.
The whiteboard will remain in the governor’s office beyond this gas tax fight. When a member of the Legislature comes to Ivey with a request for funding in the future, Ivey will be able to refer to the board as a reminder of how that legislator voted on the Rebuild Alabama Act.
Politics is no doubt a rough-and-tumble racket. But here’s a question: Was all of this necessary?
During the 2018 election cycle, it seemed as if an increase in Alabama’s fuel tax was a foregone conclusion. There were a few races around the state where a potential vote to increase taxes at the gas pump figured prominently.
However, it didn’t come up a lot in the 2018 gubernatorial general or Republican primary. While Ivey was attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies and local events like Opp’s Rattlesnake Rodeo and Winfield’s Mule Day, her gubernatorial opponents were struggling for the electorate to even notice them.
The election outcome spoke for itself, and Ivey continued her reign as one of the most popular governors in America.
What was the point of calling a special session, the strong-arm tactics in dealing with members of the Alabama Legislature and a barrage of propaganda by the Business Council of Alabama and other pro-gas-tax groups when passage seemed to be a given all along?
We’re only in the very early going of Ivey’s new term and the new quadrennium, but there is something very circa 2018 Nick Sabanesque about the beginning of this session. It is reminiscent of an Alabama halftime, with the Tide boasting a 41-14 lead over a team like the Arkansas Razorbacks.
One thing to remember: As impressive a run as the Alabama Crimson Tide had in 2018, they did come up short by a 44-16 score back on Jan. 7.
Whether or not a similar outcome is in store for Ivey, it will still be a more impressive showing than most of her predecessors of the last few decades.
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