Senate Majority Leader: Method to pass school bill was necessary (UPDATE: Judge temporarily blocks bill’s transmittal to governor)

Senate Majority Leader Jabo Waggoner on Tuesday told the Business Council of Alabama’s Governmental Affairs Committee that the way the Senate passed a controversial school flexibility and tax credit bill last week was necessary but he was ashamed of the unprofessional reaction by some.

Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, said Senate majority Republicans with Gov. Robert Bentley’s backing had to pass HB 84 the way they did because strong opposition likely would have killed it had the strategy been revealed beforehand.

The bill had to go through the final legislative process today in the House before it could go to Bentley but a circuit judge temporarily blocked its transmittal based on a lawsuit filed by the Alabama Education Association.

Waggoner touched on other Senate and national economic issues but his explanation of the Senate’s passage of a greatly modified school flexibility bill on Thursday occupied most of his speech.

HB 84 by Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, originally the Local Control School Flexibility Act had made its way openly through the legislative process. It emerged Thursday from a House-Senate conference committee triple in length, with a new name, and included a new income tax credit provision for parents who move their children from failing schools to non-failing public or private schools.

Opponents that included most Democrats and the state’s largest teacher’s union cried foul over the secretive tactics used to produce the newly named Alabama Accountability Act of 2013. Waggoner said Republican leaders felt they had to pass the bill the way it was passed.

“If it had been made public what we were doing with our strategy, and we had a strategy, it was well orchestrated who was going to do what and when it was going to be done, it would be like Nick Saban or Gus Malzahn giving their playbook to Les Miles at LSU the night before,” Waggoner said of the Alabama and Auburn head football coaches, respectively. “You would have gotten beat had the loyal opposition known what would take place. We would not be successful.”

Waggoner said something had to be done to break the cycle of failure for some students, especially dropouts, a cycle that did not appear to be ending. “The bill we passed Thursday probably is the most significant piece of legislation we passed in my tenure especially to education,” said Waggoner, who has served in the legislature since the mid-1960s and the Senate continuously since 1990.

The BCA supported the flexibility bill.

After the House and Senate passed the HB 84 conference committee report, BCA Chairman Carl Jamison released a prepared statement: “BCA fully supports flexibility and although the conference committee added additional measures, any options for students in failing schools that create opportunities for them to succeed is better than the status quo. We hope all come together to move forward in a positive manner for children in Alabama.  We applaud the governor and legislature for this courageous move tonight.”

Late Monday the Alabama Education Association filed a lawsuit and sought a restraining order to halt further legislative progress and prevent or delay it from reaching Bentley’s desk. Waggoner said the bill may need amending.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Charles Price today issued a restraining order blocking the bill’s transmittal to Bentley.

Waggoner said that he was ashamed of the reaction by some in the Senate, a reaction that was unrestrained, loud, and chaotic, to the bill and the method used to pass it.

“I have seen outbursts before, some unprofessional actions in the Senate (but) I really think this was the worst,” he said. “I thought it was very unprofessional, disrespectful of the presiding officer, disrespectful of the reputation of the Alabama Senate.”

Waggoner said as a member of the former Republican minority, he knows what it’s like to be beaten politically.

“I know how to act when you get beat, you’re beat, you go to your seat, you lick your wounds and move on,” Waggoner said. “And that was not done Thursday night.”

Waggoner said most of the Senate leadership’s bills have been passed in the first 10 days of the 30-day scheduled legislative session, including various government agency consolidation bills that are designed to streamline services and save taxpayers money.

He said national economic conditions since 2008 are still driving much of the effort to streamline government process, especially on Medicaid and prisons that absorb $1 billion of the state’s $1.7 billion General Fund.

– Dana Beyerle