In the Weeds w/ Speaker Mac McCutcheon

In the Weeds w/ Speaker Mac McCutcheon

We’re breaking down the recently-concluded Regular Session of the Alabama Legislature with House Speaker Mac McCutcheon in this week’s episode of “In the Weeds w/ Alabama Daily News.”

Caroline Beck and I discuss some of the latest developments, including two bills that received “pocket vetoes” from Gov. Kay Ivey due to legislative drafting errors. We also dive into the details of the Education Trust Fund – what it pays for and how. Plus, we explain how a last-minute revenue transfer from the education budget to the general fund will help pay for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

My guest this week is House Speaker Mac McCutcheon. I’m grateful to the Speaker for sitting down with me to review the session. Ten or twelve days after adjournment allows for a little better perspective on what happened, and Speaker McCutcheon had some interesting thoughts about what passed and what didn’t.

In particular, he was proud of the gas tax and infrastructure plan that he has labored on for years. He went back a few years to explain his own history on that, and then back a few decades to talk about the legislative context of the gas tax.

The Speaker talked at length about the problems facing Alabama’s prisons and what could be accomplished by a possible special session to address the issue in the fall.

He also addressed some of the procedural problems the House faced this year with a handful of lawmakers acting out and slowing things down. I found his commentary on what it’s like to serve in the Speaker’s chair interesting, and I think you will, too.

This is a long podcast by our standards. If you want to skip past our commentary to the interview with Speaker McCutcheon, that begins at the 39:00 mark.

Interview Transcript:

Todd C. Stacy: Hey, Mr. Speaker.

Speaker Mac McCutcheon: Hey, how are you? Good to see you.

TCS: Good to see you, too. Thanks for having me in your office today.

SMM: Thanks for stopping by.

TCS: You’re in Montgomery today, but we’re out of session. What what have you been doing?

SMM: Well, we had a special event today.  The Chinese delegation from the People’s Congress of the Province of Hebei, came back in China, you know, and they, they wanted to talk with us about educational opportunities for their people, speaking primarily of the Space and Rocket Center, and NASA, and they were interested in that. And then we also had some very good discussions about the economy and the imports and exports between the state of Alabama and their country in China. As you know, the province of Hebei is what we call a sister state with Alabama. Back during the George Wallace administration, they signed an agreement to become sister states through trade and commerce and relationships, and we’ve kept that relationship going all these years.  I think it’s very timely, especially when you look at the national scene from their country of China, and United States and the trade war issue and the tariffs that we have. So those things are, you know, are at the top of the list. And for us to be able to come together from a state provenance issue, and talk about trade in our agreements with each other and where we are, I think it’s important for the state.

TCS: Well, it’s been 10 days since adjournment.  I was joking earlier – when y’all adjourn, we (reporters) come and attack you asking, “how do you grade the session” and want your immediate feedback. I was thinking about it because, here you are at the very end of the session, just after a four day work week, which is very rare – I don’t remember many of those; pretty rare. And so it’s a little unfair, just to, you know, put you on the spot. But it’s been 10 days. You get to maybe decompress a little bit, gain some  perspective. Looking back in hindsight, what are your general thoughts about how the session went?

SMM: Well, I think I think we addressed some  important issues, such as the transportation infrastructure issue. That was a huge, huge lift. It’s taken 27 years to address it, and people say, “why wait so long?” And I think just by the mere fact that it’s such a tough issue to address because there had to be some revenue tied to it. And that’s always a tough vote for any legislative body. But that was a success story for us, I think. I laugh and think about my children and my grandchildren – they will see the benefits of that. I’ve got a map over here on the wall from 1991 when they were debating the revenue and the infrastructure for Alabama, and in ’91, the speaker put that map together, which had a connectional system all across our state with four lane highways to the interstate system. And their anticipation was that, in 92, ff they could pass the revenue measure, then they were going to implement this plan. Of course, the problem was in 92, they didn’t put any kind of growth in there. They had to cut back on what their original ask was going to be when it comes to the revenue, and here we are today and still some of those areas of Alabama don’t have good four lane systems, and it hurts them economically. So, you know, looking at it, it was a difficult vote, but it’s something that needs to be done. And I hope 27 years from now, somebody’s looking at that mountain saying, “Well, I’m glad they they put in some more revenue in there and I’m glad they had growth in there so that our children will see the benefits of it.” But but that was a good piece of legislation.

The broadband issue – we moved a little more forward, if you will, on the broadband issue. You know, we we addressed that last session dealing with the grant process, trying to land ourselves with the federal government grant process to get broadband in the unserved areas. This year, we had some pieces of legislation dealing with the there were some credits in there to assist with some of the rural areas. But there was also a good move from the local utilities that run our power in rural areas who were willing to step up and help us run fiber on their lines into some of these areas that desperate they need it. We made a good move forward for the broadband industry  t

Then, of course, we can’t avoid the budgets. Thank goodness, we had a good economy. And you know, we got a $7.1 billion education budget, $500 million, half a billion dollars more than then we had. And it helped us increase the salary of our educators. They needed a raise and they were able to get a raise helped us increase teaching n the fourth or seventh grade We were able to increase teachers in that area of our school system. And then we were also able move forward with some money for Pre K to continue to build on the Pre K program. That was a good one.

General Fund was increased as well. We were able to move forward with some significant dollars to help with the corrections issue, which we still have problems with, but at least we’re moving moving in the right direction to hire more corrections officers. A a significant amount of money was put in to corrections, they were also able to increase funding to public safety, to put more troopers on the road for highway safety, and able to give the state employees on the general fund side raises as well, So you know, those were some good things that we did, too.

TCS: Any immediate disappointments you can think of?

SMM: I was disappointed. I was disappointed on the report on our corrections system from the Department of Justice. Not to say that I disagreed with any of it, but just to say that I was disappointed for us to to get that kind of a black mark on our correction system and our state. I think at the end of the day, we can we can do better; we should be doing better. In some ways, I think this is a state issue. It’s like Governor Ivey said, it’s a state issue and needs to be needs to be fixed with state solutions, and we’re going to address it. But at the end of the day, I think it’s going to be very costly, but it’s also going to be something needs to be done. So I was disappointed for the report’s sake. But I’m glad that that we have the report now and we have direction that we’re working on to try to improve it.

TCS: That’s interesting, just because so many people, when asked about different bills and different things [name different disappointments]. You went right to corrections. Does your background in law enforcement –  do you think that’s part of where that comes from? Informing your point of view on this?

SMM: I think it does. And, you know, I’ve been a longtime advocate of the corrections department anyway. I remember one year I actually fought against passing the General Fund budget because there was not enough money allocated for the corrections department. This was back during my first term. And so I’ve been an advocate of corrections for a long, long time – corrections officer safety, corrections officers pay – because if you’ve got proper staff and you have safety provided for the corrections officers, then the inmates themselves are going to benefit from the policies and procedures that you have in place. So I’ve seen that. I’ve seen that part of it from my professional, past law enforcement experience. So yeah, think so, Todd.

TCS: Y’all had a tough slog in the House procedure wise. My observation was that almost every bill, you had several lawmakers that would ask to talk and, I guess, with the intention of dragging it out and slowing things down, as they say… Is there an end game to that in terms of how the House operates? And how do you handle that from the chair? Because you’re the one presiding…

SMM: Well, it’s difficult at times to have the patience to work through the process. That’s the best way I know to say it. But, at the end of the day, I’ve been in the minority before, so I know what it’s like to have to filibuster some issues that you feel like there are things that you don’t agree with. And so I know what it’s like to be on that side. At the end of the day as Speaker, one of the things that I really believe is giving legislators the opportunity to have a voice for their districts, regardless of what party they in. They are elected, they represent 44,000 – 45,000 plus people, and those people need a voice. So I feel a sense of responsibility to make sure that that voice is heard in the House chamber.

Now, filibuster is a part of the process that you work through. When you’re in the minority and you don’t have votes, you feel like that you need to use the filibuster for political reasons or issue reasons, or just to hold up the process in general… We’ve got 77 Republicans in the House. We’ve got more than enough votes to closure on any issue. And of course, a cloture vote is where you take a vote to stop all debate, and you move to the point of the motion and vote. I don’t like to closure, because when you cloture what you do is you shut down the debate on an issue. And so because of that, I’m a little more patient than most in trying to allow debate to happen. And you can see from the Speaker’s chair, you can see when it’s an organized filibuster. And a lot of times what we’re doing during the filibuster is trying to find a compromise.

TCS: OK, so the debate is going on the floor, and you’re working in the back.

SMM: That’s right. That’s right. I have the leader of the majority party, the leader of the minority party coming up to me and I’m asking them, you know, “what’s the issue? Where’s the problem? What are we filibustering about?” And so all of these negotiations are going on at the same time the filibuster is happening on the floor. So you know, the process is working. It may not look like it, but it is working. And then at the end of the day, you’ve got some legislators that just get in the mindset that they don’t like what’s happening in the session, for whatever reason it may be, and they’re going to filibuster every bill. It just depends on how many bills we have on the calendar, it depends on what the issue is, it depends on whether or not there’s a compromise out there that can be addressed. All of these things are mixed up in the pot, if you will. And at the end of the day, we just work with what we’ve got.

TCS: That’s interesting. That’s a good behind the scenes look. Well, you mentioned the gas tax, and I remember talking to you last session, toward the end of the last session, because it was your decision to not going to bring it up last session as a strategic move to say, you know, after the election is is best. Because there was a pretty big fight in 2017, and I guess the votes just weren’t there… Turns out that was strategically correct. So, looking back at that decision, and a year later, what happened to really get the votes and change the narrative to the point where you actually passed the bill.

SMM: I think at the end of the day it was all about just educating the members. It was all about education. You know, I carried the first bill that we had, and that was what would have been in the year of 2016 when we got that bill ready. And we didn’t even bring it to the floor because it was not it was not enough interest in it to get enough votes to bring to the floor.

The year we brought it to the floor was the year that that we pulled it from the floor. That was the year that Representative [Bill] Poole had the bill, and we we had a slim margin to pass the bill. And as we get the bill ready to bring to the floor that very day, we began to lose votes before I ever walked out of this office and walked down the hall to the chamber. I lost 12 votes from the time I got here that morning, to the time that I was ready to walk out that door and go to the chamber. And then when we got on floor, I continued to lose votes during the morning before we were even debating the bill. So at the end of the day, it would have been a bad leadership move for me to put members in a vote where I knew I didn’t have the votes to pass the bill. Because I knew that this thing was going to be very contentious, especially with the gas tax revenue tied to it. And I didn’t want to send members home with a with a vote on something that no didn’t have enough numbers to pass.

So with that in mind, I really felt like during the debate of bringing us from my bill that we didn’t bring to the floor to the day when we had the bill on the floor to moving forward, I really felt like that if people could understand the issues that we were facing, they may not agree with having to raise revenue at the gas pump, but I felt like they could agree at least to the fact that we need some infrastructure improvements in our state on our roads and bridges. With that in mind, now we had some other stuff going on. If you remember, that year, we had the redistricting issue that was on the floor that year, and we had some some things that were heated, heated debates. And I knew that there would not be ample amount of time for us to educate the members and bring that bill back up during that session. And I felt like if we could go through a campaign and make that one of the issues of the campaign, that it may help get the discussion going.

So, we had people talking about it while they’re going to the voting booth, that it may help us in the next session after the election. And that’s exactly what happened. People were aware of it. People still didn’t like it, you know, the voters out there. But yet people did understand that we got an issue with our infrastructure, we gotta do something. And so we got that debate going. And once that debate got going, then, of course, I think members became more educated, they had already been through an election talking about it, so it was not something that they were going to be surprised about. And I think it got us to that point.

TCS: You think dirt starts moving and those cones go up and people start getting roads paved that might help the perceived voter problem?

SMM: I really do. And I think I think by the time that this quadrennium is over, I think that the people are going to see the difference in what this is made, and I think actually, there’ll be people out there running on this issue, rather than trying to hide from it. And let me make another point about that: some of the work that we see being done right now is work that has been own what we call the Transportation Improvement Plan. Some of the work you’ve seen being done right now has been on the books for several years, but they haven’t been doing that work because they did not know that they would have enough revenue to move some of these projects forward because there was no hope of any additional revenue coming down the road. We’re seeing some projects being opened up and bid out now that is a result of the fact that, come October, we’re going to have some additional revenue coming in and we’re going to be able to do some of these projects.

I’ve been to to ALDOT and talked with the directors over at ALDOT, I’ve talked with local officials, and they’re seeing some paving projects, they’re seeing some some street lights, they’re seeing some bridge work being done in some areas that have been proposed for some time. And they’re starting to see those projects move a little now. It’s not new revenue money, no. But it’s money that they were saving for those unexpected expenses that might come up, because now they know that there’s going to be some new revenue coming. And it’s opened up that opportunity

TCS: Well, I can say where I’m from in Prattville, I went home over the weekend, they’ve got Highway 82 going. That’s a huge need, and it’s been that way for years. It’s a dangerous road and it’s a safety issue. I can just tell you, that’s a big deal to that place. And if there are similar projects in other places, I would imagine, yeah, it would make a difference.

SMM: Yeah, and you’re right, Todd. I mean, all you gotta do is drive around the state and look. Go back and look at that Transportation Improvement Plan. And you’re starting to see these little projects starting to pop up now, where otherwise they would have still been pushed back. Because, you see, what a lot of people don’t understand is that when when you’re a growing state the way we are,  Department of Transportation has dollars that they are using to do maintenance on existing roadways, resurfacing, those kinds of things. But yet, if you have a company that you’re recruiting to come in, take a Toyota- Mazda up in North Alabama – everybody pretty well knows about that project. When that project comes in, part of the package deal for those projects is infrastructure needs around that project area. And so a lot of times ALDOT is asked by municipalities, counties, and the state itself – The Department of Commerce –  they’re asked, “Well, how many dollars could you put into this package to help us get up a turn lane fix for this business or an intersection redone to handle the truck traffic that’s going to come from it?” The state will make commitments on that, and when they make those commitments like that, if they don’t have a little bit of money put back, then they’ll actually just have to shut down the bid that they made to acquire the project. So, it’s something that’s very, very important. But now that we know we’ve got some revenue coming, then it’s kind of loosened up some of that money that they were holding back because it’s going to help them plan for the future. People don’t really this, but that’s a big, big deal when it comes to our economy.

TCS: You mentioned the General Fund and the budgets in general Right there at the at the end, there was disagreement between some of the Senate some of the House on how to pay for CHIP (the Children’s Health Insurance Program). And you were adamant about making sure that it wasn’t completely on the General Fund. Y’all had made that commitment and made that a part of your plan. So as the insurance premium tax gets, you know, moved over, basically in one of the last bills that passed. Was that by design? Was that kind of a last minute, “here, how we can make sure the General Fund is shored up and not completely liable for the CHIP 35 million?”

SMM: At the end of the at the end of the session, the biggest difference that moved us in that direction of the insurance premium – there was always discussions about the general fund paying the full cost of the CHIP. Of course, from the House perspective, we were wanting to split.

TCS: $17.5 to $17.5?

SMM: That’s right. That’s right. But, what I think what really pushed us to the point of change was the fact that for us to do it the way the Senate wanted to do it, and not split the CHIP payment and put it all in the General Fund, where we’re going to have to take the 35 million that was going to be taken from the Department of Transportation out of public safety and put back in transportation – you’re going to have to take take a part of that 35 million and put that into the General Fund. And for us in the House, we felt like we just could not and would not do that.  Because we had told the people up front that, hey, this was one of the trade offs. If you’re going to ask me to pay for more to pump, then let’s try to utilize every dollar that we have at ALDOT.

TCS: Instead of instead of diverting it to other…

SMM: That’s right. So, what we did was we said we’re going to hold firm on the 35 million that goes back to ALDOT – it will not be used anywhere else but ALDOT, because we’ve told the people that this is what we’re going to do. And then at the end of the day, because of that and the fact that we were still negotiating the CHIP payment, then that’s where the insurance diversion came from.

TCS: So it shored it up at the very end?

SMM: That’s right.

TCS: You mentioned the prison situation. There’s a lot of talk of a special session. Nothing firm yet, but it could be September or October. Generally speaking, what could a special session on prisons accomplish in your mind?

SMM: Well, I think one thing it could accomplish is it will keep us focused on the issues that we need to keep a laser focus on to accomplish what the Department of Justice is expecting us to accomplish. That’s the bottom line. Because when you look – let’s just look at sentencing reform. Let’s look at inmate and corrections officer safety and numbers of the corrections officers that are in the facilities. Then you look at the bricks and mortar of the facilities. When you look at health care provided for the inmates, when you start looking at just those issues alone, then there could be 100 pieces of legislation that can float around out there that may be moving in that same direction of one of those four areas.

We need to be focused on fewer pieces of legislation that would accomplish what we need to get accomplished out of those four strategic areas. The special session would be needed to keep us focused on what bills are we going to really focus on how do we need to amend, compromise, work on, fix that piece of legislation to accomplish what we need to get done. And for that reason, the special session, I think, will be very significant because it would keep us focused on those areas and the legislation to move us in that direction.

TCS: Because in a regular session…  Well, I was told that we don’t even have the information necessary to pass the bills, because they’re still negotiating with the Department of Justice in the Governor’s Office. So besides that, in a regular session, you’re right. Because all these issues around the table at the same time, it starts to complicate it right? Hey, this General Fund appropriation or this ETF appropriation, or I don’t like this bill. And so they start to all become, I guess, trading pieces?

SMM: Well, it could. I mean, you’ve been around the process long enough to know. You know how that goes. When it comes to sentencing reform, I mean, we already had several pieces of legislation dealing with the Class D felony when we were trying to deal with the prison reduction numbers back in 2012. But, you’ve got certain organizations that said, “No, you don’t need to take that away.” Yes, you do. You need to change the misdemeanor time in jail. There’s there’s so many directions you can start going in. And until we can get focused on a piece of legislation that will accomplish what we want to accomplish, then I  think it would be wise for us to do some work, do some homework, do some research. When it comes to the bricks and mortar, we don’t even have all the data we need right now to make a good determination as to which facilities should be closed, and which ones to stay open.

I think it’s dangerous for us to even try to set a date for the special session right now. I don’t even think we’re there yet. I don’t think we’ve got enough information to set a date yet. It could be after the holidays. It could be the first of the year before we have special session.

TCS: Well, you mentioned where prisons might be closed, where they go. That seems to always be sort of where it breaks down, right?

SMM: Big issue.

TCS: Because I guess you’ve got folks with some prisons in their districts that are big, you know…

SMM: Economic engines.

TCS: Right, jobs and everything. So I mean, should the Legislature be a part of that decision? Should lawmakers have that decision? Or at least partly?

SMM: I’m not going to say – and I’ve shared this with the governor – I don’t think that we need to necessarily make the decision, but I think we need to be at the table. And I think we need to be at the table with a package deal. When need to look at everything involved. And, how does bricks and mortar move us into the direction to accomplish sentencing reform? How does a bricks and mortar situation help us with the numbers of employees we need to run a facility?  Safety issues, maintenance issues -all of it needs to work together. To me, I think we all need to sit down at the table and we need to discuss this with the executive branch.

TCS: Well, hey, thanks for taking all this time. I just wanted to sort of switch gears to ask, are you having fun? Are you enjoying the job? Are you enjoying the Speaker’s chair?

SMM: I do. I do. At the end of the day, for me – and I’ve said this – it is very, very rewarding to sit in the chair and and watch the process work. I love the legislative process. Our founding fathers that put our branches of government in place, that wrote our Constitution – when you when you see it in action, and you see it really working the way it should, it’s such a rewarding thing. And when you see legislators coming in that are really trying to do something good for their district, they’re not just playing politics, but they’re really serving the people. From the Speaker’s chair, you can take a 30,000 foot view, if you will. And you’re not blinded by your district a lot. Although I represent my district, but you’re not blinded by the district because the Speaker’s chair will not allow you to be. You have to look at everything in the process. And when and when it’s working, it’s very, very rewarding to see it happen.

TCS: Well it strikes me, because we’ve been talking about 30 minutes and you haven’t talked about Republican things. I mean, you mentioned the fact that there are more Republicans than ever, but you haven’t even talked or tried to justify things being this conservative or you haven’t attacked anybody for being liberal, anything like that? It’s kind of been void of political talk. And yet, you just presided over a very successful House election, more republicans than ever before, and you just don’t seem to be very political about it?

SMM: Well, I don’t really know how to answer that.

[laughter]

SMM: I mean, when the elections over… You know, during the campaign, you have a political philosophy and your beliefs of whether you’re liberal or conservative, all of those things come into play. And I don’t think you can take those things out of a person. Just like your faith, your believe in God, that’s a part of you. But at the end of the day, when the campaigns are over and the people have made their choice of who they send down to represent all 105 districts, then I hold very near and dear the fact that those people need a voice. And those people elected that person, whether they’re Democrat or Republican, to be their voice.

So, as Speaker, I need to try to make sure that they have a voice. We’ll use the system and try to accomplish as much as we can and give everybody a fair shake and giving their district a voice. And at the end of the day, you know, the votes are where they fall. And if it’s if it’s pro Republican, then that’s what the people voted – the people voted to send 77 Republicans to this legislative body.

But at the end of the day, my job is to try to be fair in the process and try to keep a sense of fairness going in that chamber. I just feel real commitment to that. I really do.

TCS: Mr. Speaker, thanks for taking the time.

SMM: All right. Thank you. Good to talk with you.