There’s a famous adage in show business that goes, “Give the people what they want!” The thinking is that if you focus on giving the masses what they desire, success is almost guaranteed. Given the nature of the entertainment industry, one can understand why the mantra endures. Yet such thinking isn’t confined to the realm of entertainment. It’s also applied to politics and public policy.
For many politicians, the thinking goes, “If in doubt, take a poll.” The public good often gets supplanted by catering to what the public “wants.” Based on the actions of the Alabama legislature during its first called special session, Alabamians have a desire to totally eradicate a crucial safety net that supports hundreds of thousands throughout the state, and also to seriously degrade the ability of state government to function effectively. Alarmist rhetoric, you say? Consider this:
Last week, the House passed a General Fund budget that would have cut Medicaid by $156 million. So what? Well, such a cut in the state Medicaid budget would mean Alabama wouldn’t be eligible to receive hundreds of millions in matching funds from the federal government, effectively killing Medicaid in our state. With its demise, one in five Alabamians — mostly children (almost half in the state), seniors (about 60 percent of whom are in nursing homes) and people with disabilities — would lose health coverage. The damage wouldn’t stop there. Hospitals, nursing homes, pharmacies and literally the state’s entire economy would be devastated. If this represents the popular will, it’s of a suicidal type like no other.
Not to worry, though: This House-passed budget was axed by a Senate budget committee, and in its place the committee approved a General Fund budget from two months ago during the regular session of the legislature. Medicaid survives, yet this plan would serve as a scythe that would cut a wide swath across the General Fund, slicing more than $200 million from other programs! The effect on a multitude of state agencies would be crippling.
As happened during the regular session, Gov. Robert Bentley will most likely veto such a budget. As the Oct. 1 deadline for a budget solution looms, state legislators will no doubt find themselves trekking back up Goat Hill for another special session. As the clock winds down, the health and well-being of many Alabamians are literally at stake.
It’s difficult to countenance that our leaders could suppose such budget measures would make for prudent policy, or that the enactment of such a Spartan fiscal program would be in the best interest of the people. To be sure, politics is about catering to your constituency, and at the end of the day every politician wants to get reelected. But at some point the call of conscience, the call of what is right, should be much stronger than that of expediency, particularly when the situation is so dire.
As a U.S. Senator, John F. Kennedy wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Profiles In Courage.” In the book Kennedy looks back across the landscape of U.S. history and shines the spotlight on eight Senators who epitomized courage and stood during their time in a way that few were willing to, and in a time when fearlessness and integrity were greatly needed. Speaking of himself and his fellow Senators, Kennedy penned words applicable to all who hold or would seek to hold public office. He observed:
The voters selected us, in short, because they had confidence in our judgment and our ability to exercise that judgment from a position where we could determine what were their own best interests as a part of the nation’s interests. This may mean that we must on occasion lead, inform, correct and sometimes even ignore constituent opinion, if we are to exercise fully that judgment for which we were elected.
With a supermajority in the statehouse, Republicans run the show in Alabama. Although the state’s fiscal mess has been decades in the making, rightly or not the onus for righting our financial house now is on them. I would like to think that a majority of Alabama voters didn’t put them in power to dismantle vital and necessary services that so many of the vulnerable in our state depend on. I would like to believe that adherence to a small-government ideology doesn’t mean emasculating state government to the point that it’s unable to function properly.
When it’s time to lead, leaders must do exactly that. On their next journey back to Montgomery, state legislators, with full resoluteness, need to “exercise that judgment for which [they] were elected” and pass a budget that doesn’t take from the poor, rob our schools or jeopardize the public good. In essence, they should give the people what they need … no, give the people what’s best.