A Year After Alabama's New BeginningBy Wayne Greenhaw
Vol. 2, No. 6, 1980, pp. 20-22
Less than a year after Governor Fob James took over the reins of government in Alabama from George Wallace, it was announced that the state was on the verge of bankruptcy.
James' promised New Beginning looked as though it was about to crumble before a foundation was laid. His record with the Alabama Legislature during his first year was next to nil. The new constitution which he had promised by mid-spring failed to survive in committee. Then he announced a new tax oil gasoline just as the pumps began to register close to one dollar per gallon and the state highway department could do nothing but weep for lack of funds. And when his liaison personnel with House and Senate didn't count correctly the votes for James' War Against Illiteracy program, it failed and embarrassed the new governor.
Within days of the announced bankruptcy, James, for the first time in any capital observers remembrance, handed over prepared budgets for the coming year to the legislators prior to the regular session. The proposed budget was thousands of pages long, lap-sized two volumes, and was taken with glee by Speaker of the House Joe McCorquodale and Lieutenant Governor George . McMillan. Both grinned like possums eating molasses as they held the gigantic volumes for the television cameras.
But during the next week in January, preparing for budget hearings and the new legislature which started in February, neither McCorquodale nor McMillan could be found in the halls of the newly renovated state capitol.
Shouting loudly out of the port of Mobile and the valleys of Birmingham, however, were members of the so-called blue ribbon commission on education. Out of the woodwork came commission chairman Dr. Harold Martin of the Magic City, saying the members' time and energy had been wasted. The Governor had done them in with his $1.2 billion education budget which proposed a cut in elementary and secondary education. And from the hills of north Alabama, commission member Roscoe Roberts asked why the Governor had named them to the study group if he
Page 21was not going to take their advice.
Executive director Paul Hubbard of the Alabama Education Association, who had been fighting James all the past year, pointed sarcastically at the budget and said it was worthless. He said that it would not only take learning out of the state's education process but it would gut the teacher program.
And even James' friend, superintendent of education Wayne Teague, who held the Governor's political hand on numerous issues during his first year, shook his head in disgust at the proposed budget. Teague said he learned ask about the cut in elementary and secondary education from a six o'clock television broadcast. He pointed out that the state was already close to bottom in the nation in money spent per pupil for education.
From the plains of Auburn, Alabama Coalition Against Hunger director William Edwards said that he had found that one item in the proposed budget would cut $7.5 million from the school lunch program which now feeds poor children nourishing lunches in public schools. "This money pays the part-time help which are the lowest people on the totem pole of state salaries," Edwards said angrily. "Fob James has said from the beginning that he plans to cut state employees. Now he's aiming his political guns at the littlest man or woman he can find within state government," he added.
Dr. Robert Lager, the governor's education adviser who came up with the presented figures, meekly took up for his brainchild. Others in James' office either were not available for comment or chose not to comment.
The education budget was only the first roadblock in what might become another of Alabama's historic do-nothing
Page 22legislatures, according to one Black Belt lawmaker. "We are in a hell of a shape," the legislator said. "We have to face up to what Governor James is handing us right off the bat. By the time we're in session, the people will know it's nothing. Then what kind of program can the Governor have? He is putting himself in the hole from the first."
Another central Alabama senator, Don Harrison of Montgomery said emphatically, "I am going to propose solid, positive legislation. I am going to vote on everything the way my constituents want me to vote." One of Harrison's proposals was a strict law against consumer fraud which he in the senate and progressive house member Euclid Rains of Dothan plan to co-sponsor. They pushed the legislation last year but without backing from floor leaders. This year they hope to give Alabama a Deceptive Trade Practices Act. It is the last state without such a law.
In the meantime, a handful of lawmakers concerned themselves with looking into Alabama's regressive tax structure but warned that "we have about as much chance as we always have had," which translates to next to none.
A tax study by the Coalition of American Public Employees in 1979 showed Alabama 51st in a list including the District of Columbia. Alabama's tax collections came primarily from sales tax - 66.6% and still growing according to a study by the graduate school of business at the University of Alabama in 1974. At the same time, Alabama showed the lowest property taxes in the southeast with the possible seesaw exception of Mississippi.
James had promised that he would lift the sales tax from food and drugs, but when the regular session of the legislature opened, the lawmakers had not seen the proposal. "We are going to do something," a lawmaker promised, "with or without the governor."
Wayne Greenhaw of Montgomery Alabama, is a free-lance writer and the author of several books.