Entire complexion of state senate has changed

Published 9:21 am Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The historic partisan sea change that occurred in Alabama last November has been chronicled. However, the magnitude of the shift does not hit home until you see it close up. Many of us, who have observed the politics of Goat Hill for many years, are still amazed at the dramatic change that has occurred in the legislative branch of our state government.

As you watch the State Senate it is a totally new picture. Last year the Senate was made up of 23 Democrats and 12 Republicans. Today it is completely reversed. There are 23 Republicans and 12 Democrats. Jim Folsom, who was lieutenant governor longer than anyone in history, no longer presides. The gavel is wielded by Republican Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey. Even the senate secretary has changed. The picture of iconic Senate Secretary McDowell Lee seated beside Jere Beasley, Bill Baxley, George McMillan, Steve Windom, Don Siegelman, Lucy Baxley, and Folsom, advising and coaching these lieutenant governors is gone. Lee, who not only was the longest serving senate secretary in state history but also nationwide, has been replaced by his longtime assistant Pat Harris.

Kay Ivey presides over the Senate, although her power as presiding officer is limited. Ever since the Senate took the organizational power away from the lieutenant governor in 1999, they have continued with this protocol. Alabama’s 1901 Constitution is vague about the power of lieutenant governor. Essentially the only duty bestowed on the lieutenant governor is to become governor if the governor dies. However, for many years a Democrat controlled Senate vested lots of power to the lieutenant governors, including letting them appoint the members of the Senate committees and decide which committee considered each bill. The Senate removed that power when Steve Windom was lieutenant governor in 1999. The Senate likes this control and will probably never relinquish it back to the lieutenant governor.

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The power in the Senate is centered around five Senators. Senator Del Marsh of Anniston is President Pro Tem and has the power formerly held by the lieutenant governor. Veteran Senator Jabo Waggoner of Vestavia Hills is the Majority Leader. Senator Scott Beason of Gardendale chairs the powerful Rules Committee. Senators Trip Pittman of Baldwin County and Arthur Orr of Decatur chair the prestigious Budget Committees.

A cursory observation of the State House of Representatives reveals the same dramatic scenario as the Senate. Seth Hammett of Andalusia sat in the Speaker’s chair for 12 years. He no longer holds the gavel in the State House but is across the street heading the Alabama Development Office in Gov. Robert Bentley’s Cabinet.

The Speaker’s chair is held by ultra partisan Republican Mike Hubbard from Auburn. Hubbard’s years of laboring in the GOP vineyards have catapulted him to the throne of leadership in the House. He is joined by veteran and respected Mobile House member Victor Gaston as Speaker Pro Tem. Gaston is a favorite among Republican House members. He has been a confidant and father figure to many over the years.

Representatives Jay Love of Montgomery and Jim Barton of Mobile chair the Budget Committees in the House.  Blaine Galliher of Gadsden is Chairman of the Rules Committee. Mickey Hammon of Decatur is the Majority Leader.

Gov. Robert Bentley is unique in that he is one of the few men in history to move directly from the Legislature to the Governor’s office. By virtue of this experience he will have an excellent working relationship with the legislative branch. He is well liked and respected by his former colleagues. He built a solid reputation of being totally honest and straightforward. He was known as not only having impeccable integrity but his word was good. He does not wear his partisan badge on his sleeve. He can and will work across the aisle in a bipartisan manner to seek solutions to complex problems.

This composition of a Republican Governor, Senate and House should portend for a harmonious working relationship over the next four years. Let’s hope so because we do not need partisan wrangling and acrimony this quadrennium with the daunting financial dilemma facing our state.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.