By Todd Stacy, Alabama Daily News
As the pounding gavels signaled the adjournment of the 2019 Regular Session and lawmakers began pouring out of the House and Senate chambers, members of the media stood at the ready to gather reactions from lawmakers on what had been an eventful last three months to say the least.
This is an important moment for reporters. Most of the 140 legislators are ready to hit the road (some may already have), and the press has one last chance to get some comments on the record before they check out for a few weeks. In preparing for that last day of the session, our Alabama Daily News crew consisting of Mary Sell, Caroline Beck, Will Whately and myself planned to get as many reactions as we could posing this question to lawmakers: “what grade would you give this legislative session?”
I’ll admit, it’s a trite question, and a bit unfair. These members of the House and Senate had just completed a monster of a session in exhausting fashion with the last day ending Friday past 7:00 p.m. It’s like a sports reporter asking a runner who has just finished a 5,000 meter race what he or she thinks of their performance. Maybe let them catch their breath?
Hackneyed and annoying as it may be, the question is effective in making lawmakers think in tangible terms about what was accomplished and what wasn’t during the session. The truth is the grades are arbitrary. The goal is to get well-rehearsed politicians beyond the talking points on how they really felt. And we got some good reactions, many you might not expect.
One of my favorites was from Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, who is the Legislature’s longest serving member, first elected in 1966.
Walking out of the chamber moments after Sine Die, Sen. Waggoner took a moment to reflect and then told me, “I’ve been through more sessions that anybody here, and this is one of the toughest sessions ever. It has been a gut check this year, it really has, as far as tough, impactful votes. I mean, we’re talking lottery, gasoline tax, medical marijuana, abortion… Just as far as high profile issues, this session probably ranks No. 1 in my career.”
For the Dean of the Legislature, that’s really saying something. And although I haven’t seen nearly as many sessions, I tend to agree. Some have hailed the 2019 Regular Session as the most productive ever. Perhaps it was, but I’d say that’s really in the eye of the beholder.
On one hand, if all you wanted was a lottery, you probably think the session was pretty unproductive. Same if you were counting on medical marijuana to be legalized, or if you wanted to see steps toward Medicaid expansion. Those losses still sting for some, though I’d argue the issues are still very much alive.
On the other hand, if you wanted to see progress on infrastructure, economic development, and education, the session could hardly have been more productive. The gas tax and infrastructure plan was an unspeakably heavy lift unto itself. Add on top of that rural broadband expansion, economic incentives modernization, the literacy initiative, and revamping the state school governing structure and you’ve got a lot of significant wins.
What Sen. Waggoner gets at, and what can’t really be disputed, is that this is one of the most eventful and challenging sessions ever. Lawmakers, even the brand-new ones who had yet to cast a vote before March, were asked to consider, debate, and vote on some exceedingly consequential and deeply meaningful issues. They successfully passed two budgets that, despite record revenues, were difficult to piece together toward the end.
Among my biggest impressions from watching the session was how willing and, perhaps, eager the Legislature was to dive into thorny, complicated issues that most political advisers might advise against. If that continues, the next three years will indeed be interesting.
And keep in mind, they may not be entirely finished. Many expect a special session later this year to address the state’s dire prison situation, as negotiations continue between the Governor’s office and the Department of Justice as to what remedies are needed. Should lawmakers successfully tackle that difficult issue, it will be hard not to call 2019 incredibly productive by anyone’s standard.
Todd Stacy is the Publisher of the Alabama Daily News. Email him at [email protected].