Monday, January 31, 2011

Governing beyond the rest stop

Just off Interstate 65, a few miles south of Cullman, stands a lasting tribute to Alabama's first Republican governor since Reconstruction. It's the Gov. Guy Hunt Rest Area, named in honor of the former Cullman County probate judge who stumbled into the state's highest executive office almost by accident in 1986 when the Democratic Party exploded in internecine squabbling, awarded its gubernatorial nomination to a guy who didn't win the primary, and disgusted enough Alabamians into casting an "anyone but you" vote. Hunt was that anyone.

As rest stops go, Hunt's namesake is nothing special. About the only thing that stands out about it is that it doesn't have a companion on the other side of the highway: Southbound traffic is routed over the interstate to the same facility shared by northbound motorists. (I suppose it was more cost-effective to build a bridge and a long exit ramp than to maintain another building. I don't pretend to know those details.)

A rest stop is a good thing to have, of course, and people have had their names connected to worse before. (That includes Hunt, who was thrown out of office in 1993 over a felony ethics conviction for which he later was pardoned.) As Hunt himself said upon its dedication in 2006: "A lot of people have buildings named after them, bridges and roads, but the one thing everybody does is use the bathroom. And then I got to thinking, I have had the times, and you have, too, when you really, really have to go that there's nothing more beautiful than a urinal."

Rest stops, when you get right down to it, are all about the here and now, about a series of people resolving a series of urgent but ultimately short-term crises, about meeting an immediate need and then getting on your way without a thought about how it ties into the greater scheme of things, because the truth is that in your mind and most other minds, it really doesn't. Rest stops don't prompt thoughts about tomorrow or the next month or the next decade. They're the bare minimum, and sometimes, the bare minimum is just fine.

All too often, though, Alabama has settled for the bare minimum in its politics, too. You didn't run off to South America with the education budget? Good job. You didn't select "prison inmate" as your next job after public office? Fine work. You loudly berated the federal government while quietly making sure never to let its financial aid spigot shut off for even a second? Outstanding performance; go back and do it again. Alabama politics, even more so than in other states, has seen a mostly uninterrupted string of one politician after another addicted to a subpar status quo in a state that can do -- and deserves to do -- better.

The vision thing, as the first President Bush termed it, is hard to come by, and many of our state's politicians haven't even bothered. Few Alabama governors stand out as having tried to do truly bold and profoundly transformational things. The last guy who tried it, Bob Riley, got rewarded for his troubles by a barrage of attack ads and a 2-to-1 defeat of an amendment that would have shored up education funding while cutting most working Alabamians' taxes. He got re-elected, but not before virtually everyone demonized the idea and him for pushing it -- even many people who initially were for the plan.

To say there are disincentives for governors of either party to try to do big things in Alabama is to say Kevin Durant would win a pickup game at the local high school gym, or to say Avatar had a few special effects. We're left with a state where the constitution forces county leaders to jump through hoops for the right to carry out basic acts of local governance, with a state tax system that finances low rates for the rich with high rates for the poor and middle class, and a state that struggles from year to year to pay for even the most basic public services.

The results are as predictable as they are sad. The quality of a child's education hinges far too much on whether he or she happens to live in a wealthy area with lots of local financial support or a poor area with comparatively little. Inadequate education revenue and the soaring tuition that results mean college graduates find it difficult to start adult life without a mountain of debt unless they have well-to-do parents, make straight A's, or run a 4.5 40. And in a state that spends not a single cent on public transportation, many roadways nonetheless are in such bad shape that motorists are left to wonder if this will be the day the potholes decide to keep their gas tank as a parting gift. (Ride around I-65 in the Birmingham area and tell me I'm wrong.)

Amid these problems and more, a state of great potential and great opportunity welcomes a new governor, one who is positioned like few before him to accomplish really big things should he choose to try to do so. Gov. Robert Bentley has a strong victory margin, a Legislature dominated by his own party, working knowledge of the goings-on in the Statehouse, and that whole "I'm a doctor" thing from the campaign that he can use on the bully pulpit for at least a little while longer to try to persuade Alabamians to follow his lead. He also has at least one Democratic lawmaker convinced he will be the state's best governor ever. The hopes and expectations are high, as they should be.

Bentley's inauguration day remarks about non-Christians not being his brothers and sisters got him off to a bad start, set off some First Amendment alarm bells around the country, and raised more than a few concerns that he might not be quite ready for prime time yet. To his credit, though, he apologized for offending religious minorities and promised to act as the governor of everyone. The media storm quickly blew over, and the state's more pressing budgetary problems began to take center stage.

What remains to be seen is whether Bentley's governance style will be for the long term or for the here and now. In the next four years, will we adhere to the same slash-government, no-new-taxes-ever-for-anyone mantra that Alabama has chanted for decades to end up where we are today? Will our economic development efforts focus on handing out massive tax credits to land a few big out-of-state companies while doing too little to help homegrown small businesses? Will we keep giving our schools and public safety and health agencies just enough money to get by but not enough to do the superlative jobs they're fully capable of doing if they have the resources? Or will Bentley lay out a vision of what Alabama can and should be 10 or 20 or 50 years from now and come up with realistic plans to invest in getting us there?

The challenge is great, but Bentley has the opportunity to guide us through the hard times and lay the foundation now for a better, stronger future. If he does, he'll go down as a legendary leader, as one of Alabama's greatest governors, and as a man who can't have enough schools and roads and hospitals named after him.

And if he doesn't, there are still a couple of rest stops near Tuscaloosa waiting for a namesake.


Blogger Tal said...

This is really good and I thoroughly recommend you email it to the B-Ham news. I feel certain they will print it in the Commentary section next weekend.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Kathy said...

Very good post.

Is the Helen Hunt daycare center for state workers still open? I remember laughing over the naming of that facility, too, telling folks, "If you want to find your children, go to Helen hunt."

7:12 PM  

Great take great post.

3:13 PM  

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