Matthew Stokes: Recognizing bright lights in the Alabama Legislature

Matthew Stokes: Recognizing bright lights in the Alabama Legislature

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

Matthew Stokes

We’re just a week away from the start of the 2019 legislative session in Montgomery.  There are plans for some of the usual culture war fights over abortion and Bible classes in school.  This year should feature an important debate over a gas tax, and regardless of the outcome, we would do well to have a substantive debate over how government should be funded.  There are also a couple of additional proposals floating around that represent, along with their sponsors, a couple of bright lights for conservatives in the Alabama Legislature.  They are worth highlighting and celebrating.

State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, is already well-respected in Montgomery, and his work should be cheered by conservatives.  According to a recent piece in Yellowhammer News, Orr is working on a proposal to get the state out of the retail liquor business.  Orr correctly recognizes the ABC store as a holdover from Prohibition, and notes that the state would save a considerable amount of money in personnel, rent, and additional overhead costs.  This is the right move for several reasons, but I’ll focus on two.

First and foremost, there’s no practical reason that state of Alabama should be in the retail liquor business.  Government works best when it understands its own limitations, and a retail business that cannot respond to customer demands – closed on Sunday and all holidays, closed at 6:00 p.m., limited selection, and employees whose knowledge of the product is often limited – serves no one.  Any business that cannot be flexible ought to get out of the marketplace and make room for better competitors. It would be a considerable boon to state finances to unload these obligations over time, and a savvy move on Orr’s part given the current attitude towards both taxes and spending.  

It’s also the right move for another reason: however one feels about liquor, conservatives should recognize that the state-regulation of any industry tends to create negative incentives.  It would be best for all if the state stepped aside and let the morality of both consumers and the market itself regulate the industry.

On the matter of funding, State Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, has gained attention ahead of the session for a proposal to increase the gas tax in Alabama for the purpose increasing infrastructure spending.  As chairman of the House Ways and Means – Education Committee, Poole’s knowledge and concern about revenue should cause all Alabamians, particularly Republicans and conservatives, to perk up.  

I’m certain that there will be much to say in the coming weeks about the merits of the particular tax proposals that are brought to the floor in the State House.  In the meantime, I believe Poole deserves credit for breaking with Republican orthodoxy in calling for the tax hike. The proposal forces its opponents to think deeply about the level of funding our infrastructure receives. If the threat of a tax increase forces legislative opponents to place specific spending cuts on the table, and then make that case to voters, then Poole and his co-sponsors should be recognized for leadership that forced a difficult but pertinent debate.

The condition of our state’s prison system has received a great deal of attention in recent years.  Overcrowded and neglected for many years, the system has been desperate to right the ship in order to avoid federal interference in its operations.  State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has done tremendous work in this arena – one which many politicians would be happy to ignore it in the name of being tough on crime. Ward’s leadership has been critical here for a couple of reasons.  

As a pragmatic matter, it is important for the state to properly manage its resources and avoid a federal takeover.  More importantly, however, is that while prison should always be a deterrent to criminals, it should nevertheless remain a humane place free of cruel and unusual conditions.  As much as possible, rehabilitation should be the goal so that former convicts can be reintegrated into society and recidivism rates reduced. Ward’s efforts have gone a long way towards that end.

There has been much to criticize and even ridicule within Alabama politics over the last few years.  A friend once reminded me that Montgomery doesn’t really have a lot of conservatives or liberals; just a lot of people looking for a slice of the pie to take back home to their district so they can receive a lot of “attaboys!” at church or the ballpark.  That is probably true of some.

Yet, there are still many folks inside the Legislature doing real work. It is not always interesting or exciting. It might be hard to explain in sound bites and it is perhaps even controversial. Every time we send politicians to Montgomery and they commit themselves to the hard work of governing, we ought to stand up and take notice.  

These are just a few examples, and I expect more are to come. For now, though, a tip of the hat is in order, as we look for great things in legislative session ahead.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at lookagain@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.