Thursday, March 08, 2007

Trying to be everything to everyone

Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, offered a pretty fair assessment of Gov. Bob Riley's State of the State address Tuesday night: "When you listen to his speech, it's almost like you can't tell what is Democratic or Republican. I think he's been able to bridge that gap with a few exceptions."

For sure, Riley's roughly 45-minute speech included something for everyone. For education backers, there were the proposals to give teachers a 7 percent pay raise and to issue $850 million worth of bonds (better described as the "buy now, pay later" plan) to build and repair schools. For tax reform advocates, there were the calls to eliminate the sales tax on over-the-counter medicine and to raise Alabama's income tax threshold again. And for advocates of lower taxation, there were the plans to offer tax incentives for small businesses and to slash income taxes for everyone making under $100,000.

The speech's bipartisan elements also extended beyond budgetary issues. Riley challenged lawmakers to put their money where their mouths are by passing a badly needed ban on transfers between political action committees, which make it impossible to trace the source of millions of campaign dollars. (The plan, which Rep. Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville, has introduced annually for the last half-decade, once again escaped a House committee today, but as in the past, members of both parties want to add amendments.)

Riley also walked a narrow partisan tightrope in discussing the Iraq war. Careful not to denounce or alienate war critics, he nonetheless threw a chunk of red meat to war supporters by asking the Legislature to register its opposition to cutting Iraq war funding. The resolution would be non-binding, of course, but Alabama lawmakers are known for a willingness to pass measures that serve no practical purpose.

In all, Riley's speech was a solid one, commendably heavy on substance. The governor's second term, though, will be judged not on rhetoric but on results. Promising signs emerged near the end of his first term, when he worked with a Democratic Legislature to pass some needed progressive measures, including sentencing reform and a higher income tax threshold. Still, the comity only goes so far in a deeply political town.

The key battle in Montgomery this year, as it was last year, will be between Riley and education lobbyist extraordinaire Paul Hubbert, who opposes many of the tax cuts because they would take away money that would go to education instead. Just like last year -- and many years before -- expect Hubbert to get most, if not all, of what he wants.

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