When Robert Bentley the candidate was seeking the support of Alabamians to become governor, he pledged that he would not accept a paycheck from the state until Alabama reached full employment. To his credit, that is a pledge that so far he has kept. Once made, such a pledge should be honored.
But it is not a pledge that he should have made in the first place. Such promises are political gimmickry, and such campaign gimmicks are seldom in the public's interest.
The salary pledge proved popular, as such gimmicks often are. But popular or not, the public should look askance anytime a politician makes a similar pledge, for several reasons.
Among those reasons:
-- First and foremost, only relatively wealthy individuals can afford to forgo a salary for a four-year term of office. And in a democracy, holding public office should not be limited to the wealthy.
By voters giving credence to such promises, they are essentially buying in to the premise that elected leadership should be only the province of those rich enough not to need a salary for four years. And that's not good for the state of the state.
-- Second, not accepting a salary could make some politicians more reliant on special interests and outside financial support.
Assume for a moment that a political candidate who really cannot afford to give up a salary makes such a promise. (Clearly Bentley probably would not fall into this category.) The financial strain of going without a salary could make that elected official more open to taking questionable financial support from special interests.
It's not difficult to imagine the elected official having mental debates with himself that go something like: "Well, I'm not taking a salary, so what's the harm in taking a vacation at this lobbyist's condo?" Or "... what's the harm in using campaign funds to pay for my personal expenses?" Or "...what's the harm in padding my expense account to cover a questionable item?"
-- Finally, and this does apply in Bentley's case, when linked to specific goals, such promises tend to oversimplify and/or overemphasize one specific issue when looking at the big picture is usually more important for public officials.
That's clearly true of Bentley's promise to not take his salary until the state reaches full employment, which he later described as a 5.2 percent unemployment rate.
In recent months, Alabama's unemployment rate has inched downwards. In general, that's a good thing.
But as I have pointed out several times in earlier columns, the unemployment rate can go down for good and bad reasons. If it drops because more jobs are being created, that's good. But if it drops because potential workers are becoming discouraged and are giving up on finding work, that's bad.
Back when he was candidate, Bentley had another goal if elected -- the creation of 250,000 jobs.
"My goal as governor is to stimulate the creation of 250,000 new jobs in Alabama," he said in a campaign position paper. ("Putting Alabamians Back to Work", December 2009.) He made the promise again during his inaugural address.
Because of his no-salary pledge, by far the emphasis of the news media and the public has been on the unemployment rate. But the governor's jobs goal is arguably more important.
In that regard, he still has a long way to go.
According to the Alabama Department of Labor's website, Alabama's employment in January 2011 -- the month Bentley took office -- was 1,998,201. In June, the latest month for which numbers are available, there were 2,023,217 people employed in the state.
That's a growth of 25,016 jobs -- just one-tenth of the governor's stated goal.
But even that does not tell the full story about jobs in the state. Stated simply, all jobs are not created equal.
Many of the new jobs in Alabama are in relatively low-paying fields, and many are in part-time work. Any job is better than no job, of course. But is still matters to the state's economy -- and even more to families struggling to pay the rent -- that the average weekly pay of employed Alabamians is declining while inflation is increasing.
And how does the state's job growth compare? Alabama is doing better than the nation as a whole on its unemployment rate, but not on new job growth.
An economic blog, On Numbers, recently ranked governors on job creation. Bentley came in tied for 36th out of the 45 governors rated. (Five governors who took office this year were not ranked.)
In Bentley's defense, elected officials don't have as much control over job growth as they would have you believe. And I do believe Bentley has given job growth the proper emphasis during his first term in office. He is trying to do what he can.
But please, no new promises of not taking a salary from Bentley or from any other elected official or candidate. In the long run, such promises are not in the public's best interest. The state (and the nation) are better off with elected officials who pass on political gimmicks in favor of well-reasoned policies that address the big picture.
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 email@example.com.
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