By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
POINT CLEAR, Ala. – To hear former Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon tell it, their tenure has included landmark reforms to set the state’s financial house in order, but much work remains to improve education and make sense of the ethics code.
“The accountability we have put into our education budgeting process through the Rolling Reserve Act has benefited this state greatly,” McCutcheon said. “I think it has yet to be seen just how meaningful that one reform is going to be. Lots of younger members weren’t here in the lean times when we passed that, but they are going to be glad we did when lean times return.
“We haven’t had proration since and I believe we won’t in the future.”
The two retiring leaders made something of a swan song joint appearance dubbed “The Last Word” at the Business Council of Alabama’s governmental affairs conference in Point Clear. The annual event brings together the state’s top political leaders for a three-day agenda of policy meetings, panel discussions and networking events.
Marsh and McCutcheon took candid questions from Horace Horn of PowerSouth Energy Cooperative. Marsh is stepping away after almost 25 years in the Legislature, including 10 as the Senate’s top leader, and McCutcheon is calling it a career after 16 years in the House, including the last six as Speaker.
“I’m certainly proud of Rolling Reserve, I’m certainly proud of Rebuild Alabama and I’m proud of the (Alabama) Accountability Act,” Marsh said. “But if I’m being honest, I have to face the fact that I’m leaving office as Alabama is ranked last in math and next to last in reading. That means I failed. And I want to challenge all of you who are remaining that we have to fix this problem of education in this state.”
Marsh has been a fierce advocate for education reform during his time in the Senate, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. His tough words earned hearty applause from the audience full of the state’s business and political leaders. And his call to action on education was the talk of the conference afterward.
McCutcheon and Marsh both named the 2019 passage of the Rebuild Alabama infrastructure and gas tax package among the Legislature’s best accomplishments in recent times. McCutcheon specifically pointed out how Gov. Kay Ivey and BCA were instrumental in getting that legislation across the finish line.
“I had been dealing with the infrastructure issue for several years, really since the very beginning. Being from north Alabama where so much growth is happening, I knew we needed to address the gas tax but, of course, that is a very tough issue… What it took was Gov. Ivey and the BCA, Katie Britt was the leader then, really leading the charge and making the case for infrastructure. That’s how it happened.”
Marsh recollected that the debate over the gas tax included a lot of hand wringing from lawmakers who were very nervous about voting for a tax increase with conservative constituents.
“We had just been through an election cycle and it was tough,” Marsh said. “There were people who were wringing their hands worried about this vote. Some of them we still never got a ‘yes’ vote from. But we got it done. Now fast forward to this election cycle where gasoline was pushing $5 a gallon. And I will stand here and tell you that that vote did not cost a single legislator their position.
“If you just do the right thing and see that through and explain it to your constituents, you’ll be fine,” Marsh said. “And there will be another issue in the future when they will wring their hands about that vote, but if you do the right thing it will not take you out.”
Asked what action they would like to take back, both Marsh and McCutcheon mentioned rushing to pass ethics reform so soon after Republicans won majorities in the House and Senate in 2010. While most agree the reforms were well intended, they have been the source of frustration for many public officials who find the rules convoluted and contradictory.
“If there’s one thing I look back on and had the chance to do it over again, it would be ethics reform,” Marsh said. “Listen, I’m all for ethics, but that has caused unintended consequences for a lot of people and it made it hard for people to build relationships with members of the Legislature.
“We’ve had discussions about how to fix it, but it’s hard because as soon as you’ve taken a vote to change the ethics code, you’re accused of weakening ethics. But we need to take a look at it.”
McCutcheon concurred saying the process should have been more deliberate.
“I’ve looked back on that on so many different fronts,” he said. “I think it needed to be addressed, but the timespan in which we worked on so many major things, I don’t think we gave it enough thought. And there were a lot of problems in there that we could have caught. So yes, I would like to go back to ethics and I wish we had that one to play over again.”