Ken Hare In Depth: AEA takes its lumps in the Legislature

Ken Hare In Depth: AEA takes its lumps in the Legislature

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

To say it hasn't been a good year so far for the Alabama Education Association would be an understatement. In fact, it has been a horrible year for the AEA.

First it lost a showdown with Retirement System chief executive David Bronner over control of the teachers' retirement board. Then it was blindsided by a bill allowing tax credits for parents whose children are zoned for failing schools to help send them to private schools. And now even the AEA executive secretary's position on the teachers' retirement board could be removed by a bill in the Legislature.

Until a few years ago, the AEA was at the top of the food chain in the lobbying business in Alabama. The AEA had the power to get a lot of its legislative agenda passed, and perhaps more important, it  essentially could kill any bill it wanted to in the Legislature.

But then came two events -- perhaps related, and perhaps not. First, Alabama voters elected a Republican supermajority in the Legislature. Then, longtime AEA leader Paul Hubbert retired. And now it's a whole new ballgame for the AEA.

Hubbert was replaced by Dr. Henry Mabry, a longtime Montgomery operative who had been finance director under Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman. But he had since worked for two organizations usually seen as sympathetic to Republicans -- the Alabama Business Council and Alabama Power Co. So there was some hope that Mabry could build some bridges with the new GOP leadership.

But the chance that the AEA will improve ties to the Republicans in the Legislature in the near future may have been burned away by the AEA's scorched-earth  reaction to its latest defeat.

Back to the AEA's year so far. It started with a showdown between Mabry and David Bronner, the head of the Retirement Systems of Alabama. Bronner accused Mabry of trying to take over control of the Teachers Retirement System Board. Mabry denied such an attempt, but AEA did strongly back two new board members seen as Bronner critics. The AEA's choices did not come close to winning a runoff election.

Then came the crusher for Mabry and the AEA -- the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act by the Republican supermajority. The AEA opposed the bill as it started out -- it originally started as a flexibility bill that allowed local school systems under certain circumstances some leeway to avoid accountability requirements for public schools. Then in a conference committee, the GOP substituted a whole new element that would provide tax credits for parents with children in failing public schools to send their children to private schools.

That infuriated the AEA leadership. But it wasn't just the content of the bill; it was how it passed. Mabry was, to put it mildly, sandbagged by the GOP lawmakers and the GOP governor.   

"We were railroaded. We were lied to. Lawmakers lied to us. The Senate pro tem lied to us. ...The governor lied to us," an upset Mabry told reporters after the bill's passage, according to al.com.

I doubt if even superlobbyist  Paul Hubbert would have been overly successful in working with the new GOP-dominated Legislature. He certainly would not have had the effectiveness he had in the past.

But it's difficult to imagine Hubbert being as blindsided by the GOP as Mabry was over the Accountability Act. And it is almost impossible to imagine him licking his wounds publicly after such a defeat.

Mabry said  of the passage of the Accountability Act: "I've been told that it would not have changed one vote if it had been Paul Hubbert or me representing the AEA. It would not have mattered."

Even with these setbacks, the AEA remains a potent political and lobbying force. It represents a major portion of the teachers in the state, and it still has lots of money to donate to its supporters. That's a one-two punch that cannot be ignored.          

Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, said all legislators "have teachers who are constituents in our districts" and that they deserve to be heard. But he said the days of the leader of the AEA being able to sit in the gallery of the House and turn thumbs up or down on a bill are over.

I asked Brewbaker and House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, if the AEA's troubles are linked to Paul Hubbert allowing the AEA to become so identified with the Democratic Party in the past.

Brewbaker said that probably was a factor with veteran legislators with a longer institutional memory, but not necessarily with newer legislators.

But Brewbaker said the AEA "is still using a strategy like they have a majority in both houses."

Speaker Hubbard was more pointed, saying that in the past the AEA was "a subsidiary of the state Democratic Party, or perhaps vice versa."

But both the House speaker and Brewbaker maintained that the legislative leadership's differences with AEA and Mabry were about issues rather than about making the AEA look bad.

"We don't look at it as defeating the AEA but as changing the status quo in education," said Speaker Hubbard. He said the GOP majority was just trying to improve public education, and with the Accountability Act, the goal was to stop public schools from failing.

But Mabry did not see it that way. He told me that the GOP leadership in the House and Senate had a "seething envy" over the AEA's past lobbying successes.

"The whole thing is about past jealousy over AEA's success," he said. "They want to get their pound of flesh. That's what this is about."

He said the AEA was not upset with all Republicans in the Legislature, "just with the leadership group and the zombies that follow them."

Mabry said he expects the Republican leadership to continue to oppose issues the AEA supports because "they let their emotions get ahead of their brains."

"That's fine, because it just energizes our people to do what they need to do to get rid of these folks," Mabry said.

So clearly, at least from Mabry's perspective, the clashes between AEA and the GOP leadership in the House and Senate are far from over.

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

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