Ken Hare In Depth: Best and worst session labels are political b

Ken Hare In Depth: Best and worst session labels are political baloney

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

It was the best of legislative sessions, it was the worst of legislative sessions, it was the session of wisdom, it was the session of foolishness -- in short, it was a session in which "some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

Alabamians have been treated with such Dickensian descriptions of the just-completed 2013 regular session of the Alabama Legislature, with Gov. Robert Bentley declaring it as the "best session ever" and Democrats in the Legislature calling it the worst ever.

In truth, it was neither. With apologies to these "noisiest authorities," such over the top descriptions from either side of the political aisle are simply political baloney.

But that didn't stop the superlatives -- good and bad -- from rolling in.

"This has been, overall, the best legislative session I believe this state has ever had," Bentley told the news media. "I truly do believe that." (It should be noted that Bentley said that before the Republican supermajority in the Legislature shot down his executive amendments to the Alabama Accountability Act.)           

But Bentley was far from being the only Republican to heap praise on what he and his fellow Republicans accomplished in the session.

House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, told al.com: "This is the most productive session since I've been in the Legislature." He's been there since 1998.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, was a little more circumspect: "It's definitely been the best session in the three years we've been in power."

The Democratic view of the session was summed up by Senate Minority Leader Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile: "As a whole, this was the worst session we've had in terms of bad legislation and bills that could have passed."          

Best, worst; bad, productive -- who could resist comparing it to the famous first paragraph of Charles Dickens's "Tale of Two Cities."

But when the political hyperbole from both sides calms down and the 2013 session can be viewed with a little historical perspective, this session almost certainly will fall somewhere in the middle.

Frankly, it is too early to tell whether some of the legislation passed in the session will prove to be good or bad, or a little of both.

That's true of the state budgets. And it is especially true of the Alabama Accountability Act.

["Ken Hare In Depth: State Budgets, for good or bad, pass" 5/10/13]

As I noted in an earlier column, it is virtually impossible to judge whether the state General Fund budget and the state education budget are good budgets or bad ones until the coming fiscal year -- which starts Oct. 1 -- is close to being over.

The Legislature does deserve credit for adopting the budgets without the need for a special session. But only after the public sees the impact of General Fund budget cuts on public services will the citizenry be able to fully judge whether that budget is good or bad. And only after it is seen whether there are enough revenues to fund budgeted services can either budget be rated good or bad. If revenues do not meet expectations, then across-the-board cuts in the budgets will be necessary, and such cuts are always disruptive.

The full effects of the Accountability Act also remain to be seen. It does focus attention on "failing schools." But no one is sure how many schools will be affected by the "failing school" label, and it also remains unclear how many parents of children zoned for those failing schools will be eligible for the tax credits for attending private schools. And therefore the impact on revenues for public education -- public schools and public colleges -- remains to be seen.

So the jury is still out -- and will be out for some time -- on whether the budgets and the Accountability Act will prove to be good or bad legislation.

But the Legislature did adopt some new legislation that I believe clearly belongs in the plus column.

For instance, the sweeping Medicaid revisions are crucial to keeping the program solvent and affordable for the people of Alabama. As with most complicated legislation, there may have to be tweaks made to make it work. But the legislation is most likely to prove not only positive, but absolutely necessary.

I also would put legislation to improve school security in the plus column. But on the down side, lawmakers failed to pass a bond issue to improve security at school entrances.

A bill that strengthens the state law on elder abuse also belongs strongly in the positive column.

Often the best thing the Legislature can do is nothing, and that is certainly true of the emotional fight over Common Core standards for public education. I would put the Legislature's decision not to pass legislation to weaken the state's educational standards in the plus column.

In the negative column, put the Legislature's misguided decision to raid the Children's Trust Fund to  bolster the General Fund. What were they thinking?

Also put the gun legislation in the negative column, especially the act barring employers from banning employees from bringing guns to work in their vehicles. The bill should have been called the "Mass Murderers' Convenience Act." The next time a disgruntled employee decides to shoot up his workplace, he can remember his legislators fondly for making it unnecessary to go home to get a gun.

There were other good bills that passed, and bad bills that failed, just as there were other bad bills that passed and good bills that failed.

In the end, it is just as wrong to label this the best session as it is to call it the worst one. It was, as always, a mixed bag.

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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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