By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist
There’s a funny scene in Sleepless in Seattle (the greatest romantic comedy of the last thirty years) where Rosie O’Donnell and Meg Ryan are discussing the likelihood of finding a spouse after the age of forty. Faced with grim statistics, Ryan tells her friend that those statistics are not true. O’Donnell replies that she’s right. It’s not true, she says, but it feels true. Most people can relate to that tendency, if not in love than in some other area of life.
It’s true in politics. Perception very quickly turns into reality, and politicians have little choice put to acquiesce to that new reality. The concern is that voters perceive a reality that does not actually exist, and politicians then govern based on this non-reality. This past legislative session is a good example. This week, Alabamians will pay higher prices at the gas pump as a new gas tax goes into full effect. Everyone recalls how controversial the Rebuild Alabama initiative was, and critics are not wrong when they point out that not a single legislator ran on raising gas taxes in 2018. In retrospect, I agree with those who argued that any tax increase should be accompanied by a tax decrease in another area. Yet I wonder how many voters would have been willing to trade the gas tax for a corresponding cut in both taxes and spending on one program or another. It is easy for young legislators to brag about their opposition to the growth of government, but that bravado would carry a lot more weight if it were accompanied by a plan to cut the weight of something far more serious, such as the impending weight of government employee retirements on the next generation.
We shouldn’t pretend any of this is easy. There are multiple situations at work: roads that we all acknowledge are in disrepair, a state budget that is stretched thin, a strident anti-tax climate, and a public that largely holds public employees, especially educators and first responders, in very high esteem. While we may complain about desk service at the DMV, most of us are reluctant to see those employees experience any sort of financial discomfort. That’s a long list of needs, and historically precious few leaders have wanted to address any of those problems. The political reality is inevitable, but so is the reality of infrastructure, budgets, and revenues.
In a related story, the plans for a new toll bridge connecting the eastern shore of the Mobile Bay to Mobile were shelved this week. Residents were largely opposed, and their local leaders followed through on their wishes. When the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization removed the bridge proposal from its Transportation Improvement Plan this week, Governor Kay Ivey declared the proposal dead. A lot has already been said about this messy situation, but a couple of thoughts are in order.
I realize the Alabama Department of Transportation is often the worst kind of bureaucratic bully. I was working in downtown Birmingham when the plans for the reformed Malfunction Junction were revealed. The opposition looked something like the “Avengers, Assemble!” scene from Endgame, but ALDOT plowed on ahead with hardly an ear given to the voices, both powerful and meager, that spoke against it. There was very little in ALDOT’s public pronouncements that inspired confidence and understanding on the part of commuters.
In fact, this is a classic example of the danger in empowering an unelected branch of government with significant authority over public funds and proposals. Voters must have a more direct recourse with plans and proposals they oppose. We often speak of politicians having to bend to political reality, but there’s a reality that voters have to face up to, as well. As my colleague Todd Stacy noted in a column on the Mobile mess back in July, voters really do love it when politicians tickle their ears. Even voters who project a pretense of conservatism have forgotten Milton Friedman’s great adage that there is no such thing as a free lunch. A state budget created in one year is likely inadequate to meet the state’s problems a decade later.
Those budgets can and should change through the political process, but voters and some legislators seem to have forgotten that politics is a matter of give and take. One legislative session may find your side giving up something in exchange for more support for your proposal during the next term. Voters are not wrong to fear excessive taxes and power-hungry bureaucrats, but refusing to engage in political give and take is ultimately a dead end road. Perhaps it was time for someone to tell ALDOT to pound sand, but I worry that voters’ impetuousness has created more problems than it solved. With the measure tabled, the possibility of another bridge to ease congestion across the bay has been pushed that much further into the future.
It’s often said that the mark of an intelligent person is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas together at the same time. I would go further to say that it’s not just a matter of intelligence, but wisdom. It is the mark of the sort of wise person needed to lead in a free society. All the same, I can’t shake the feeling that voters are trying to have it both ways. We want quality public services, but we can’t stomach tax increases and legislators are understandably scared that spending cuts will mean the end of their time in office. I still believe that the government that governs least governs best, but it must still govern. Until voters are willing to trust their elected officials and reject local demagogues in politics and media who only tell them what they want to hear, I worry that our wonderful state will be stuck in the mud of our own making.
Matthew Stokes is a contributing writer for the Alabama Daily News. He is a writer and college instructor from Birmingham, Alabama. For more information on his work, follow him on Twitter at: @yellingstopal