Ken Hare In Depth: GOP thumbs nose at public, key constituents - WSFA.com Montgomery Alabama news.

Ken Hare In Depth: GOP thumbs nose at public, key constituents

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

So much for the party of transparency. When the chance came to flex its political muscle in the Legislature it now controls, the Grand Old Party proved that it places expediency first, and the need for public discourse and input are not even on its radar.

In other words, the political party in charge in the Legislature has changed, but the tricky tactics remain pretty much the same.

By now most readers know the basics of the story involving passage of what started out as a controversial school flex bill. As envisioned, the bill would have allowed local school systems -- with the OK of the state school superintendent -- the flexibility to avoid some state education laws.

That was controversial enough. But after long negotiations to work through some of the  issues, the bills that had passed the House and Senate went to a conference committee supposedly to iron out differences in the two versions.

Instead, in a bait and switch move more expected from a sleazy con artist, the Republican majority on the conference committee added 18 pages to the nine-page bill.

Then the GOP majority slammed the rewritten bill through without allowing time for it to be thoroughly read, much less debated.

The new bill gives tax breaks to parents of children who live in attendance zones of failing public schools and who choose (whether they are doing so now or choose to do so in the future) to send their children to private schools. Those tax breaks, of course, would siphon money away from funding for public schools and public colleges. It also would allow businesses and individuals to get tax credits for donating to a scholarship fund for children to attend private schools -- again, tax credits that would siphon money away from public schools and colleges.

Basically, the Republicans in the Legislature seem to be saying their way of improving public education is to take money away from some of the worst funded public schools in the nation and give it to private schools.

But this column isn't really about the pros and cons of the legislation itself. It was pushed through with so little study and essentially no public debate that it will take some time to learn enough about the potential ramifications of the bill to know whether its positives will outweigh its negatives.

However, the way the bill passed raises serious questions about the leadership of the  Republican officers in the Legislature and the governor.   

It certainly appears that when they supposedly were negotiating in good faith on the bill, they in fact were simply setting up the opposition for their bait and switch scheme.

If only the Alabama Education Association and Democratic legislators were being duped, the scheming might be explained away just as politics as usual. After all, the AEA and its Democratic allies often used strong-arm tactics against Republican legislators back when Republicans were in the minority. Two wrongs don't make a right, but they do make such tactics more understandable.

But those being conned also included State Superintendent Tommy Bice and the members of the state Board of Education and the state Association of School Boards --  mostly good, well-meaning people who did not deserve to be treated this way.

The public also was duped. Even if this bill proves to be the best thing for the public since sliced bread -- and the verdict is still out on that -- such a fundamental change in education policy deserves to be publicly debated and explained before it is passed. The citizens of Alabama deserved a chance to weigh in on these changes, and the GOP tactics denied them that opportunity.

One of the saddest comments in the aftermath of the passage came from Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston. Marsh was quoted as saying that delaying passage of the bill to allow for debate would have allowed opponents to inundate legislators with calls.

Isn't that the way it's supposed to work? Isn't the public supposed to be allowed time to react and provide input to elected officials?

If this bill is as good as Gov. Robert Bentley and Marsh claim it to be, why the need for the subterfuge? After all, the Republicans control the governor's office and have a supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature -- in other words, enough members to override any delaying tactic.

So if they were so sure of the rightness of their cause, why not use that supermajority power to pass this legislation the right way -- with public input and public debate?

As an editorial writer in Alabama for almost three decades, all too often I had to blast Democrats for running roughshod over Republicans when the Democrats were in charge. Such tactics were wrong then, and they are wrong now.

Lord Acton, a British historian, said, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."  With supermajorities in the House and Senate and with a Republican in the governor's chair, the Alabama GOP has almost absolute power over legislation. The Republican leadership needs to take care that it does not prove Acton's adage true.

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Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at khare@wsfa.com.

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