One of the obvious political changes in Alabama government over the last decades with the Republican takeover of the Legislature has been the reluctance to raise new revenue to fund state government. Many of the current Republican legislators came to Montgomery in 2010 with a no new tax pledge. Voting for any kind of tax or fee increase was considered blasphemous.
In bygone days, powerful governors like Big Jim Folsom and George Wallace would raise taxes at the drop of a hat. Especially when it came to a gasoline tax to build roads. It was perfunctory and almost mandatory for a governor to have a Road Program. That was their legacy and how they and their legislative allies made friends. It was expected that a governor would build roads. Raising the gas tax was the only way to create a Road Program. Folks didn’t seem to mind. Looks like this current Legislature may have realized they need a Road Program.
During the Wallace era, one day, Governor Wallace was having a benign news conference to talk politics and garner publicity. A young reporter out of the blue asked him a pointed question. “Governor, why do you give all the road building contracts and permits to your cronies, contributors and legislative allies?” Wallace looked at him quizzically and replied, “Who do you think I ought to give them to, my enemies?”
In 1983 I was a young freshman legislator and Wallace was in his last term as governor, and as usual, he was going to have a Road Program. Well he wasn’t just interested in raising the gas tax, he was taxing just about everything that wasn’t nailed down. He had already asked us to pass eight or nine “revenue enhancement measures,” before he came with the whopper the gas tax for roads, highways, and bridges.
I was actually Wallace’s representative since I represented his home county of Barbour. Therefore, I was dutifully voting with the governor because, believe me, our area was going to get more than our fair share with Wallace as Governor.
To get his gas tax passed, he went to the wall and resorted to a tactic he had used in past administrations in his earlier years as governor. He would bring us down to his office, 10-15 at a time and hot box you and prod a commitment out of you. Well, I was in a group with a particularly bad boy named W.F. “Noopie” Cosby from Selma. Noopie had voted against all of Wallace’s Revenue Enhancement Measures. Noopie had acquired his nickname early in life and I’m not sure anyone in Selma or anywhere else knew his given name.
Wallace, besides being almost completely deaf, had also gotten prematurely senile because of the tremendous amount of pain killers he had to take every day to even survive because of the devastating gunshot wounds to his body 10-years earlier. He was very hazy this day and he called Noopie “Nudy.” He must have called him Nudy 20 times. I could hardly contain my laughter. Several of us in the room laughed so hard we started crying. It was the most humorous dialogue I ever recall. Wallace said, “Nudy, you need you a road program.” “When I was a legislator I had a road program for Barbour County.” “Nudy you need a road program for Dallas County and Nudy we need these taxes for our road programs, so Nudy, here’s the way it works here.” “Nudy, if you vote for my taxes your road program will be part of my road program, but, Nudy if you don’t vote for my taxes I’m afraid you won’t have a road program and your road program will go to Barbour County.”
Big Jim Folsom had a Road Program. He built farm to market roads in every corner of the state so that Alabama small farmers who lived on dirt roads could get their crops to market. He made his legacy with this Farm to Market Road Program.
When I make a speech, in the state from Scottsboro to Dothan, many times I will share Big Jim stories with my audiences. Invariably, afterwards, some old timer will come up to me and say, “Flowers, if Big Jim was running for governor today, I’d vote for him. He paved my daddy’s road."
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in more than 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.