Inside Alabama Politics – June 15, 2022

Inside Alabama Politics – June 15, 2022

Has Trump tipped Katie Britt over the top?

Last week was one of anticipation in Alabama political circles, particularly as it pertains to the hotly contested GOP Senate runoff between Katie Britt and Mo Brooks. Early in the week, word began to spread of a new McLaughlin & Associates poll in the field on behalf of the Alabama Forestry Association. These AFA/McLaughlin polls have been a staple of the past few election cycles, including this one, and their numbers have tracked pretty well. With another one on the way, politicos asked:

“How will the numbers have shifted since Election Day?”

“Will Mo Brooks continue his resurgence?”

“Will it impact a potential endorsement from former President Donald Trump?”

Remember that the last time there was major movement in a poll, it did impact Trump’s endorsement. Back in March, Trump pulled his endorsement of Brooks a day after an ADN/Gray TV poll showed the Huntsville Congressman slipping to a distant third place.

Finally, on Friday, Forestry released the numbers:

  • Britt 54.6%
  • Brooks 36.4%
  • Undecided 9%

Of course, a poll is just a snapshot and they can always be wrong. You can never predict who will vote in a runoff. Insert other caveats and cliches here. But, to any politico worth their salt, an 18-point lead 12 days out from the election spelled likely victory for Britt, especially with her decided financial advantage. It’s also worth remembering that McLaughlin’s last poll about a week out from the primary underestimated Britt’s support. That survey had Britt at 37.4%, while she got 45% on Election Day.

The folks down in Mara Lago certainly saw it that way. Within nine hours of our first story on the poll posting, Trump had issued a full-throated endorsement of Britt.

“Above all, Katie Britt will never let you down,” Trump wrote in a statement, adding, “she has my complete and total endorsement!”

It goes without saying that, for Trump, backing the winning candidate is a chance to help him solidify his influence over the Republican party nationally. That may be of particular importance after his hand-picked candidates were roundly defeated in Georgia last month. He needs national headlines next Tuesday to say “Trump-backed candidate wins Alabama Senate primary,” and he’ll probably get some. But those in the know in Alabama will know that’s not really the story here.

So, has Trump put Britt over the top with his endorsement? No. She was there already. But, the polling plus the endorsement probably serve to discourage some outside groups from engaging late in the game because they’ll all see what we see: these dishes are done.

Where does Mo go from here?

The Mo Brooks Senate saga has had a fascinating arc. He starts out as the clear frontrunner, a position he holds for a year after he announces. Gets caught flat-footed by attacks from super PACS and slips down to a distant third place. After a “let Mo be Mo” effort he climbs back within striking distance of Britt to make the runoff. Begins a “re-endorse Mo” social media campaign to try to convince Trump to back him due to his MAGA bonafides (which Brooks now says was an idea that came from Trump world). Finally he’s again on the outside looking in as polling shows him struggling against Britt, whom Trump subsequently endorses. It has been one a hell of a rollercoaster.

So where does he go from here?

Sources tell IAP that Brooks’ message has shifted from what happens on Election Day to what happens after. He and his allies have latched onto the Wade Perry / Katie Britt flap.

In case you aren’t familiar with that story, former Alabama Democratic Chairman Wade Perry posted on social media that Britt was “super helpful to us in the Doug Jones thing.” Jeff Poor had that story. That began a guessing game on social media as to what was behind Perry’s post. Was he talking about how Sen. Richard Shelby, for whom Britt worked at the time, helped sink Roy Moore by saying he wouldn’t vote for him? Was he saying she was helpful during the transition after Jones won, as any chief of staff would be? Was he being cute and surreptitiously trying to stir up trouble for Britt knowing some Republicans would lose their minds? Who knows. What we do know is that Brooks and Co. are trying to convince party leaders that the tweet is evidence that Britt violated ALGOP bylaws by supporting a Democrat.

Sources tell IAP that at a recent appearance in Shelby County, Brooks himself discussed the tweet at length saying it was cause for the ALGOP to disqualify Britt as a candidate and declare him the nominee. He reportedly compared it to the party removing others from the ballot for openly supporting Jones, including political consultant Gina Dearborn, wife of former Trump Deputy Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn, who attempted to run for the state executive committee. All indications point to Brooks and his allies pressing this issue in a public way in the remaining days leading up to the election and in the days and weeks after. The ultimate goal would be to get the ALGOP steering committee to disqualify Britt as a candidate for violating the party bylaw against supporting Democrats and name him the nominee for U.S. Senate.

Such a decision would send shockwaves not just statewide, but nationally. Some of the most fervent within the party say a message needs to be sent about Democrats playing in Republican elections. However, those with a working memory of the 1986 election understand how overriding the will of the voters can have disastrous consequences. That’s when Charlie Graddick edged out Bill Baxley in a runoff for the Democratic nomination for governor. However, Baxley challenged the results, arguing that Republicans had crossed over to vote in the Democratic runoff for the more conservative Graddick. The Alabama Democratic Party ultimately named Baxley as the nominee and the move to overrule the election results led to Guy Hunt becoming the first Republican elected governor since Reconstruction.

Would Alabama vote for a Democrat if the ALGOP was seen as subverting the will of the voters? Democratic nominee Will Boyd is self-proclaimed pro-life and pro-gun after all. Probably not, seeing as how voting for the Senate these days amounts to giving your side the best chance of controlling the majority. Even in this hypothetical, Brooks would likely still easily win. But it could damage the party’s reputation and cause problems for future races.

To be sure, sources within the ALGOP say it is unlikely the party will even consider such a request from Brooks after the election without more serious documentation. For her part, Britt has made it clear through public statements that she has never supported Democrats for office and that she believes Perry’s tweet was an attempt to sabotage her campaign.

Should Brooks continue to press the issue after the election, the greatest impact might be to fuel the growing talk among Republicans about changing Alabama to a closed primary system. That kind of talk seems to surface every election cycle, but the chatter has increased in recent weeks as so many in the activist wing of the ALGOP saw their favored candidates lose to what they consider establishment types.

 

What happened and what’s next in Senate District 27

Last week, Alabama Daily News reported that the campaign of State Sen. Tom Whatley is no longer seeking a recount as part of its contest of the results that saw him lose to challenger Jay Hovey by one vote. We reported all we could from on-the-record sources for that story, but there was much more from sources on background that helps explain what’s going on.

First of all, Whatley’s team was only requesting a recount in one precinct in Tallapoosa County where there was thought to be an “over vote.” That means someone possibly marked both candidates and it was unclear who they actually intended to vote for. Determining that could possibly flip the results. Whatley’s father, Charles Whatley, filed a challenge that included a request for a recount. However, after Hovey’s legal team questioned the timing, manner and procedure of Whatley’s requested recount under Alabama law, the request was withdrawn. In a statement, Whatley’s legal team said Hovey’s team objected “to all aspects of the recount” and rather than arguing over the legalities of a recount, it would cast its lot with the ALGOP “to ensure that all Republican votes are counted in the race.”

Hovey in a written statement to IAP on Tuesday said he wasn’t objecting to the recount, but seeking clarification.

“…I didn’t fight a recount, I simply asked for documentation that the timeline for the request and requirements for assurance were met. All of which were known long before my certification as the Republican nominee was official. All parties involved were well aware of what was necessary for the recount to be legitimate.

“The fact that only one box out of the entire senate district was subject to a recount seemed a little odd. I did request clarification that a recount of a single box was appropriate rather than the entire county. It was my desire that if a recount was to happen, only ballots that were counted on election day be counted in a recount – that’s why it’s called a recount.  It wouldn’t have been appropriate in a recount to count votes that were not counted on Election Day. They only asked for one box. That hardly serves as any double check on the first count in my opinion.”
Now the contest will be solely determined by the Alabama Republican Party and specifically its steering committee.
As part of its contest, Team Whatley presented several examples of social media posts showing self-proclaimed Democrats expressing their intention to vote for Hovey as well as members of Hovey’s campaign informing Democrats that they were allowed to vote in the Republican primary and encouraging them to do so. Given the one-vote margin, it’s practically a certainty that a Democratic “crossover vote” determined the election, the argument goes. There is no specific ALGOP bylaw about crossover voting. In fact, some say the bylaws are kept intentionally vague for this very purpose. But because state law allows parties to determine their nominees for the general election ballot, the ALGOP would be within its legal rights to disqualify Hovey and name Whatley as the nominee in SD 27. Whatley’s team seems to like his chances,  with his lawyers issuing a statement that said “Senator Whatley remains confident that he will be named the Republican nominee for Senate District 27 and will continue to serve the people of the district.”

The question now is: what will the ALGOP steering committee do?

Sources tell IAP there are a handful of steering committee members who are eager to disqualify Hovey on the basis of Democratic interloping and hand the election to Whatley, while others are urging caution at what would surely be viewed as a monumental decision. For his part, ALGOP Chairman John Wahl has been making calls to State House leaders to gauge how either decision would be received by the Legislature, and specifically the Senate. Would the Senate GOP Caucus be upset if the ALGOP didn’t do everything it could to send one of its own back for another term? Or would they be upset if the party was seen as subverting the will of the people and creating a public image problem for everyone with an R beside their name? From what we can gather, the latter was the prevailing message to Wahl.

There’s no question overturning the vote would be a public relations problem for Republicans broadly. See the aforementioned case of Baxley vs. Graddick. However, a decision to flip this race could also cause acute problems for the ALGOP, Whatley himself and Senate Republicans. The wave of criticism that would ensue could very well cause a groundswell of discontent to propel Democrat Sherri Reese to victory. Senate District 27 is as close to purple as modern districts get and it’s easy to see Hovey supporters not reacting well to having their votes discounted.

Then there’s another scenario. Under Alabama’s “sore loser” election law, anyone who loses the primary election cannot appear on the general election ballot or campaign as a write-in candidate. However, Hovey didn’t lose the primary election. In fact, he won it. If the ALGOP disqualifies him, Hovey would have a very good legal argument that he should be allowed to run as an independent write-in candidate in the general. It would be an extraordinary feat for Hovey to generate enough write-in votes to win the general election, but it’s plausible if not probable that such a campaign could swing the election to Reese and the Democrats.

The steering committee is scheduled to meet on June 25 for a hearing on the matter. It is unclear whether a decision will be reached that day. It is also unclear whether or not the proceedings will be public. What is clear is that the party’s decision will be exceedingly consequential.

 

Election superlatives

Once again we tend to avoid the pejorative “winners and losers” trope, but there’s no question this year’s primary elections yielded some superlative and, well, not-so-superlative performances from candidates and institutions. We offer a few.

The Business Council of Alabama and the business community in general had a strong election. Consider this: A former BCA president outperformed everyone’s expectations with 45% of the vote and is poised to be Alabama’s next U.S. Senator (that sound you hear is a collective knocking on wood from Mobile to Huntsville). Gov. Kay Ivey coasted to victory by beating back a field of challengers intent on taking Alabama in a more populist direction. This after championing a gas tax and being relentlessly attacked to the tune of $16 million over mask mandates and other issues. Greg Cook easily defeated Debra Jones for Supreme Court in the race that became a proxy war between business and trial lawyers. And they heavily supported Mike Kirkland who knocked off State Rep. Tommy Hanes in an example race (more on that below). Again, most of this involved groups beyond BCA, including ALFA, Trucking, Retail, Auto Dealers, Realtors, Roadbuilders, Energy companies and the like all working together. Should Katie Britt finish and Wes Allen pull through, 2022 will truly be a banner year for business.

The Realtors deserve a standalone superlative here for their work in the Supreme Court race. If not for Jeremy Walker seeing the opportunity and rallying the rest of the business community behind Cook, that race might not turn out the same.

Likewise, it has been a winning year for pragmatic Republicans versus the more MAGA crowd. Sure, just about every candidate tried to tie themselves to Trump, but there’s a difference between lip service and unconditional fealty. For the most part, the pragmatists won.

Just as it was a good election for business, it was a tough one for trial lawyers. They went all-in on Debra Jones for Supreme Court and got beat. And a Senate Judiciary Chairman friendly to Trial was also defeated, save the challenge going on in SD27. The trial lawyers have been one step ahead of business in recent cycles, especially in judicial races, but this time they were a step too slow.

It was also a bad year for millionaire self-funding candidates. Few voters had ever heard of Mike Durant or Lindy Blanchard before this election. But after as much as $20 million was spent between the two of them, now they are household names. That wasn’t enough to get them close to making a runoff. At least in Durant’s case, he and his team can say he was the clear frontrunner for about a month with most observers thinking he was a lock for the runoff. But in the end, Durant couldn’t withstand the onslaught of attacks. Was that a glass jaw? Was it a sclerotic response? Maybe a combination of both? In any case, Durant couldn’t pull it off despite outspending his opponents. Blanchard’s $15 million debacle is far more embarrassing. In the end, she got 125,915 votes, or 19.24%. Rough math shows Blanchard spent $119 per vote in the primary. With that, she could have just taken each voter out to a nice dinner. Some did eat well off the effort on the consultant side, including Susie Wiles, Britney Garner and Jonathan Barbee – so perhaps they deserve superlatives of their own. Nicely done.

Speaking of consultants, David Mowery gets a superlative for his work beating the political odds by electing Josh Carnley to the State Senate. Virtually every state advocacy group was behind State Rep. Mike Jones, but Carnley pulled off the upset and won without a runoff in the three-candidate field. Mowery tends to pull these seemingly unlikely victories off every few years and remind folks of his campaign acumen.

 

The House GOP’s mixed bag on election night

The last several election cycles have frequently been described as “bad for incumbents,” but the results almost never bear it out to be the case. This year may be the exception, depending how you look at the results for the Alabama House Republican Caucus. At least six caucus members went down in primaries, with two more in runoffs:

  • In HD-7, State Rep. Proncey Robertson lost to Ernie Yarborough
  • In HD-23, State Rep. Tommy Hanes lost to Mike Kirkland
  • In HD-28, State Rep. Gill Isbell lost to Mack Butler (challenge notwithstanding)
  • In HD-45, State Rep. Dickie Drake lost to Susan Dubose
  • In HD-88, State Rep. Will Dismukes lost to Jerry Starnes
  • In HD-94 State Rep. Joe Faust lost to Jennifer Fidler
  • In HD-4, State Rep. Parker Moore is going to a runoff with Patrick Johnson
  • In HD-14, State Rep. Tim Wadsworth is going to a runoff with Tom Fredricks

There are several ways to look at this. By our count, there were only 18 races in which incumbent House GOP members faced primary challengers. On the one hand, it’s pretty impressive that most of the caucus avoided primary challengers. On the other hand, losing a third or potentially 44% of primary challenges is not a good batting average.

One must also take into account a few factors influencing these numbers. Faust was practically begged not to run due to his advanced age and inability to get around and Dismukes was ballot box poison after all of his troubles the last few years (Confederate party, indictment, new family). So it’s probably fair to take those off the list when judging the effectiveness of the caucus campaign.

When you throw in the unexpected loss of 17-year Democratic State Rep. Ralph Howard in HD72, maybe the incumbent fatigue finally got to Alabama.

Making an example of Hanes

Sometimes in politics, examples are made of officials or bills or candidates to make the body politic aware of an institution’s influence. Such was the case this election with State Rep. Tommy Hanes.

If the Business Council of Alabama had a sh*tlist, Hanes would be at the top of it. In 2019, he voted against the Rebuild Alabama gas tax and infrastructure plan and loudly crowed about it, throwing colleagues under the bus. In 2021, Hanes leveled direct criticism against Gov. Kay Ivey and BCA regarding Alabama’s response to the federal government’s vaccine mandate, then co-sponsored legislation that would have allowed employees to sue businesses if they felt discriminated against in relation to their status for all vaccinations, not just the COVID vaccine.

Even so, it’s often difficult to knock off an incumbent. The most important factor is finding the right candidate. Enter Mike Kirkland, a likable, chamber-of-commerce kind of guy and someone who has been engaged in the local and state business arena for many years.

About a month out from the election, polling emerged among Montgomery insiders showing Hanes was indeed vulnerable down the stretch, especially after testing messages that positioned Kirkland as the pro-business candidate. Soon after, BCA did its own polling that revealed Hanes was only up by a single point on a straight ballot test, putting Kirkland well within striking distance. This helped garner support from other business organizations who collectively contributed to Kirkland’s campaign in a big way. All told, the coalition of business groups pumped in more than $125,000 to assist Kirkland. A little more than $50,000 of that total was contributed by BCA, according to campaign finance reports. ALFA was also an early and strong supporter of Kirkland, contributing just over $30,000.

With those kinds of resources, Kirkland now had the ability to get up on television with an ad. But what should the message be? The same survey referenced above showed that Ivey was exceedingly popular in House District 23. Positioning Kirkland as the candidate that will work with Ivey could be a winning strategy, but simply throwing up a photo of Ivey and claiming to have her back might not quite do it. That’s when Drew Harrell, executive director of BCA’s ProgressPAC, remembered that not only had Hanes voted against Rebuild, sponsored anti-vax legislation, and been generally critical of Ivey, he had also endorsed her opponent, Tim James. He put in a call to Team Ivey to remind them of this fact.

An endorsement would be easy, but they began to plot out how to truly maximize it with a photo or video. That’s not an easy task considering that Ivey’s campaign schedule was locked in and did not include a visit to Scottsboro. It did, however, include a visit to Snead State Community College in Boaz, where Kirkland happens to be on the foundation board. Arrangements were made for Ivey and Kirkland to bump into each other when, wouldn’t you know it, there was a camera crew on hand to document the meeting. A Kay Ivey smile and backslap was all it took, and Kirkland’s team had the few seconds of video it needed to put it up on TV. See the ad below.

Kirkland would go on to defeat Hanes 51.59% to 48.41%, or 243 votes. Kirkland gets a seat in the House and BCA scores a win – and an example – on the legislative front.

Racing for the Speaker’s gavel

“Who’s going to be the next Speaker of the House?”

Aside from the May 24 election fallout, it’s one of the most asked questions in Montgomery right now and there are two dominant contenders: House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter and long-time lawmaker and House General Fund committee chair Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark.

While another candidate could pop up, Clouse and Ledbetter have been openly campaigning for the House’s top spot since last year. The House Republican Caucus will likely make its speaker selection soon after the November elections. A new speaker won’t be formally selected until the full chamber meets later.

Both men are well liked and respected, several House members told IAP. In his role as House Majority Leader, Ledbetter has worked closely with House Republicans, including freshmen in 2019, and built relationships.

Clouse, as General Fund chair, also has a lot of reach, though fiscal talks might be a bit more formal and limited than what Ledbetter gets to have in his role.

Clouse told IAP that he’s not pitting himself against Ledbetter when talking to current or potential colleagues.

“It’s a matter of making a case for myself and my 28 years (in the House), particularly with dealing with the General Fund budget over the last 10 years and my experience and institutional knowledge,” Clouse said.

He said he’s been talking to members about what’s important to them and their districts and how he might be able to help them.

Ledbetter is having similar conversations.

“The goal (as speaker) is to make everyone in our body successful in their districts and for our state,” Ledbetter said. He also points to last session “and probably the most conservative agenda that the caucus has put forth.”

“We certainly need to continue that work,” he said.

Both Ledbetter and Clouse chair political action committees that made significant donations to House candidates in this election cycle. Ledbetter’s Alabama House Majority PAC, which he’s been chairman of since 2017, spent about $181,000 on about two dozen candidates and several consulting companies.

The Clouse Leadership PAC, created in July 2021, has spent about $66,000 on 22 candidates.

Whoever the new leader is, caucus members will be looking for him to be “tougher” on House members who go against the caucus than current the current speaker, a few said.

Five vie for Speaker Pro Tem

Rep. Victor Gaston’s decision to end his 40-year legislative career this year leaves another House leadership spot open in the coming quadrennium. Gaston, R-Mobile, is Speaker Pro Tem.

The title means speaker for a time and one of the main duties is to fill in for the speaker in his or her absence.

So far, five current Republican House members are vying for the spot that will be decided by their colleagues. They are (in alphabetical order) Terri Collins of Decatur, Jim Hill of Moody, Craig Lipscomb of Gadsden, Phillip Pettus of Green Hill and Chris Pringle of Mobile.

Collins is running for her fourth term in the House. For the past two terms, she’s chaired the House Education Policy. She was behind some of the biggest bills in the last quadrennium, including 2019’s Literacy Act and a near total ban on abortions.

Collins, who retired from her role as a bank vice president when she was elected to the Legislature, told Inside Alabama Politics that she has the desire, experience and time to make the role all it can be.

She’s the only current contender who was in the State House when Republicans took over in 2010.

“I think that historical knowledge of what’s gone on at least since 2010 would be helpful,” Collins said.

She also said she has good relationships with her colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

If elected by her colleagues to the spot, Collins said she would remain very involved in education issues. Whether she kept the committee chair role would be a decision for leadership later, but she’s open to the possibility, she said.

Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, a retired circuit judge, is seeking his third term. He’s chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He said the speaker pro tem role is critical for ensuring the House runs smoothly if the speaker is away and sees it as an advisory role to the speaker, committee chairs and members.

“I believe I have the experience, whether in the court room or the House Judiciary Committee, to facilitate things moving the way that they should,” he said. “… I think the law practice I’ve done and the experience I’ve had lends itself to this position.”

He also said the  leadership position is an opportunity to work with the Senate and other branches of state government, which he would enjoy.

Lipscomb, R-Gadsden, is seeking a second term. Lipscomb, an architect, said it’s time for some fresh ideas in the Alabama House.

“It’s time to think outside of the box and realize that some things are never going to change until we become bold and uniformly determined to do anything necessary to make us not only equal to, but better than our peers,” he said.

That starts with legislation and leadership in the State House.

He said when looking for leaders, the length of their tenure is less important than what they’ve accomplished in that time.

“I think the important thing you have to focus on is the relationships you’ve facilitated, not just with your party, but in the House as a whole because the pro tem is not a caucus position, it’s a House position.

“…I’ve worked diligently to facilitate those relationships all around.”

Pettus, a retired state trooper, is entering his third term, defeating a GOP challenger in last month’s primary. When Pettus was a new lawmaker, he relied on veteran Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, to show him the ropes. He said he wants to do that for new members, of which there will be many. Going into this election cycle, there were 21 open seats, 19 of them belonging to outgoing Republicans. Meanwhile, seven House incumbents lost on May 24, though one of those races has been challenged, and three more were forced to runoffs. Several others have challengers in November.

Pettus, who chairs the House Fiscal Responsibility Committee, also said he wants to help whoever the new speaker and has had conversations with both leading candidates.

“I want to be their right-hand person,” Pettus said. “I want to do as much as I can to take as much as I can off of them and help them.”

Pringle actually has the most House experience. He’s entering his third consecutive term and fifth total. He served from 1994 to 2002, took a 12-year break and returned in 2014.

Pringle said he wants the pro tem’s role to be more active.

“The pro tem is supposed to be the senior advisor to the speaker and the leadership,” Pringle said. “The pro tem is the person who has years of legislative experience, that knows the rules and knows the procedures and has that institutional knowledge and wisdom to help guide the leadership in the House.

Pringle, a realtor and general contractor, cited other leadership changes that will make institutional knowledge important.

“We’re going to have a new speaker, we’re going to have a new House clerk,” Pringle said. “…I would like to bring my years of experience to the table and help the chamber through these changes.”

“… There’s going to be a very large turnover in the House. People who have only been there a few years are going to be assuming leadership roles. While they’re very intelligent and dedicated people, nothing, in my opinion, is better than experience.”

 

A new House Clerk

With newly elected lawmakers and a reshuffled leadership team, the Alabama House of Representatives is certain to look a lot different in the next quadrennium. But beyond State House insiders, few know that there will also be a new Clerk of the House. Jeff Woodard is set to retire this year after more than 31 years in the House including the last 10 as its top official. That doesn’t include the 13 years Woodard spent covering the Legislature as a reporter. So, it’s fair to say he’s earned the right to put his feet up. Also, his wife, Lisa Woodard, is retiring after a career in lobbying, mostly with the School Superintendents of Alabama. While there is no date certain for the current Clerk’s retirement, it is coming before the next session.

That begs the question: Who will the next Clerk of the House be?

John Treadwell is currently the Deputy Clerk and it is understood that he is in line to assume the role. Pursuant to the House rules, once Woodard retires it would be up to the Speaker to appoint an Acting Clerk, which will almost certainly be Treadwell. Then, upon the next meeting of the House, the body as a whole will elect the next Clerk officially, State House insiders tell IAP that Treadwell is well-respected by staff and lawmakers alike, and he’s well prepared after spending several years in the Legislative Services Agency before coming under Woodard’s tutelage in the House proper. It’s a challenging and important job, as so much that happens in the Legislature depends on the behind-the-scenes process operating like clockwork. Look for that vote to happen in either the organizational session or the beginning of the next regular session.

Incommunicado on budgets, hearings

Last week, Alabama Daily News reported that legislative leaders were planning a series of budget hearings in the coming weeks to see how rising inflation is impacting state agencies and what kind of resources might be needed to mitigate its impact. The only problem is, those agencies didn’t get the memo. Neither did the governor’s office or the finance director. That’s according to multiple sources with knowledge of what happened.

The miscommunication led to some less than happy words exchanged between the executive and legislative branch leaders, mostly because the executive side felt like it had been sandbagged into participating in hearings for which it hadn’t prepared.

In any case, lawmakers on the Senate and House General Fund budget committees will meet several times starting Thursday to hear from state agencies about how cost increases are impacting their spending power and state funding allocations. Up first are Medicaid and Pardons and Paroles.

Where are we on a special session?

When lawmakers ended the 2022 regular session in April, they parted ways acknowledging it was possible, if not likely, they would see each other again in late summer or early fall for a special session.

But as spring becomes summer, a special session on the distribution of about $1.1 billion from the second round of American Rescue Plan funding is more uncertain.

“I think the likelihood seems to be fading,” one House leader told IAP this week.

There are a few reasons why…

First, the state still has not received all the guidelines on how to spend ARPA II funds. Prior to other spending plans for COVID-19 relief money, lawmakers and the executive branch came together to discuss a spending plan. That hasn’t yet happened. Any special session on spending would require a detailed plan, and no plan would be possible without those guidelines.

Second, there may not be a practical difference between passing a spending plan in September than one in November, December or even January whenever the organizational session takes place. After the November general election, the new Legislature is seated immediately, so it would be the next quadrennium’s House and Senate voting on the package. It’s less likely, but lawmakers could even wait until March when the 2023 Regular Session comes around to deal with ARPA II.

The state has until the end of 2024 to allocate the money and the end of 2026 to spend it, some there’s an argument that there isn’t a rush. Meanwhile, much of the money lawmakers allocated six months ago has yet to be spent. One Senate leader said right now there simply isn’t a burning need for a special session.

Other lawmakers told IAP that there are downsides to punting until next year. For one, the new House and Senate bodies will include many new members who might be a bit gun-shy about spending $1.1 billion in federal money as their first act in the Legislature, whereas before November you can be confident of the result. Some remember back to 2010 when many young lawmakers felt overwhelmed and intimidated voting on a major ethics reform overhaul within weeks of being elected to office. Those arguing that a special should happen sooner rather than later also say that to spend the money on major infrastructure projects, including broadband or water and sewer, Alabama will be competing with neighboring states for supplies and contractors. The clock is ticking on expenditures and getting those projects in the pipeline shouldn’t wait, they say.

Gov. Kay Ivey is the only one who can call a special session.

“At this time, discussions related to the second round of ARPA funds continue, and there has not been anything firm set,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola said. “All options remain on the table.”

 

Potpourri 

Joshua Vaughn will soon take the reins over communications at the Business Council of Alabama.  This comes as Susan Carothers departs the role after more than a year leading comms and marketing. Carothers has long worked with and for BCA, previously coordinating fundraising and events on a contract basis. She’ll return to that contract relationship while being able to pursue other opportunities through her company SC Events and Communications. Vaughn is a BCA veteran and has been the creative engine behind the group’s campaigns and events for years. Have a BCA T-shirt or other swag? Josh designed it. Been to a BCA event? You’ve heard his baritone voice MCing the evening. He steps into the top Comms role after more than 12 years at the organization.

The Capitol Resources firm of Toby Roth, John Hagood and Will Fuller will be adding a new member to their team in July. Anna Beth Payne is a 2022 graduate of the University of Alabama where she received a degree in public relations and was elected campus-wide as SGA Executive Secretary. A native of Enterprise, Payne’s recent political experience includes internships with Congressman Barry Moore and the Business Council of Alabama, among others.

Congrats to all!