THE ISSUE: Desperate for a distraction that would keep their constituents from expecting them to govern, the Alabama Legislature found one: Planned Parenthood.
It’s an awkward time to be in the Alabama Legislature for those who have spent their political careers calling for smaller government and lower taxes.
What do such politicians do when they already delivered on the small-government promise, but don’t have the tax revenue even to sustain that?
One approach, of course, is to confront the problem. To explain to constituents that as much as they might like the state to provide no-cost services, it needs tax revenue.
That’s the approach Gov. Robert Bentley has taken since being elected to his second and last term. His naive hope was his willingness to educate the people on the realities of running a functional state would give legislators the courage to take the only responsible avenue open to them: increasing taxes.
Far from it, lawmakers delighted in using Bentley as a political punching bag, shaming him by passing a budget they knew he’d have to veto, refusing to go into special session when he asked and proposing unrealistic cuts he will once again have to veto.
With those theatrics getting tiresome, however, lawmakers needed something else. The Planned Parenthood videos — showing an official with the organization discussing the availability of fetal tissue for scientific research — were made to order. Legislators, baffled by the budget, are vocal in their support of a bill that would ban the sale of aborted fetuses.
No matter that a federal law already prohibits sale of fetal tissue and places numerous restrictions on its use for life-saving research. No matter that the tissue has been used for medical research for decades.
The Legislature did not need a bill that mattered, it needed an issue that distracted the public from its utter failure to govern the state. It needed something that would prevent people from noticing it is pillaging the Education Trust Fund rather than fixing the General Fund budget. Legislators needed something sensational enough it would keep constituents from asking why they ignored the imminent budget crisis not just in this year’s regular session, but over the last several years.
Indeed, it takes a major distraction to obscure the fact lawmakers year after year patched budget holes with one-time windfalls and borrowed money, but didn’t grapple with the issue of what to do when the one-time fixes ran out.
A beleaguered Bentley was determined to one-up the Legislature, which he did by ending Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood.
This gesture was even more pointless than the House bill that largely duplicated existing federal prohibitions. Medicaid does not cover abortions in Alabama. Indeed, total state Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood over the last two years came to $4,351, and that was for contraception.
With Bentley’s fiscal-conservative halo tarnished by his call for a needed tax increase, he is determined to make headlines that help his social-conservative halo gleam.
Our elected officials have shown us they are brilliant at manufacturing distractions. Now it’s time for them to show they have the backbone to govern.
(Published Aug. 9, 2015)