The tip of the iceberg

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 17, 2006

I sat on a stool at the podium on the right side of the Senate Chamber.

Two things were different: first, rarely does anyone sit on a stool at the podium; and second, rarely do I speak from the right podium. These were just two of the changes wrought by consideration of the $6.2 billion education budget on the Senate floor. They were the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

I sat on the stool because I knew I would be at the podium for a while. Standing on my arthritic knees would quickly bring pain severe enough to adversely affect my personality. With the stool, I could avoid the pain and be my best self. I needed to be at my best. I usually stand at the left podium because my Senate desk is located directly in front of that podium. On this occasion, I switched to the other podium because it is nearer to the place where Joyce Bigbee, Norris Green and others from the Legislative Fiscal Office sit in the Senate. The Legislative Reference Service is also in that area. It is so much easier for Joyce and Norris to provide information to me at the right podium when I handle the budget. What we see is usually just the tip of the iceberg.

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The Teacher Pay Raise Bill was the first of two bills on the special order calendar (agenda), and the budget was the second. If the pay raise bill passed, it further defined discussions about, and limited challenges to, the budget. It also made a filibuster much less likely. I expected nearly all senators to vote for the pay raise bill, putting the Senate in a favorable mood for the education budget.

What we see is just the tip of the iceberg.

In truth and frankness, passage of the education budget is not won on the Senate floor.

The foundation for victory is laid long before the budget bill is considered in legislative chambers. That is why Rep. Richard Lindsey, chairman of the House education budget committee, and I talked early to develop a budget outline. That is why we worked with Joyce Bigbee and others in the Legislative Fiscal Office to fill in basic budget blocks.

That is why we constantly talked with legislative leaders for input.

Long before this moment in the Senate chamber, we had talked with leaders of education interest groups. We had talked with every member of the respective House and Senate budget committees. We talked with other legislators who impact the legislative progress.

We talked to so many because it makes a powerful difference when we talk with others.

This is true even if we can do little of what they request. Exclusion usually fans fires of resistance. What we see is just the tip of the iceberg.

I value every senator. I value their concerns, their needs and their desires. Therefore I try to address those concerns, needs and desires within reason. Sometimes, however, I cannot meet all these concerns, needs and desires.

For example, one senator had a fundamental disagreement with the budget philosophy. He wanted to spend all the money, but a lot less on recurring expenditures. Our approach was to save some $250 million as a safety net. I knew I could not meet this senator’s needs and desires. I assumed he would not vote for the budget, but I talked with him anyway. There were others I was convinced would never vote for the budget, but I communicated with them anyway. Sometimes what we see is just the tip of the iceberg.

There were many others actions taken in preparation for this moment on the Senate floor. For example, interest groups that supported the budget contacted their senators. We anticipated the concerns that we thought might be raised and devised responses. As I sat on the stool at the podium, I explained, answered questions, met challenges and valued each senator. I knew that passage of the budget would not be won on the Senate floor. I also knew that passage could be lost on the Senate floor. The surest way to fail to pass the budget was to devalue a fellow senator. That was easy, because devaluing others runs counter to my nature.

The direct challenges were few and far between. One challenge was to cut community service grants. Another was to make room for an anticipated tax cut. A third was to include an appropriation for the McWane Center in Birmingham. Each challenge was duly met.

After two hours of consideration, the $6.2 billion Education Budget passed the Alabama Senate by a vote of 27-6. I was glad passage of the budget was somewhat bi-partisan, with a few Republicans voting for the budget along with every Democrat.

The budget is now in the hands of the governor. We will see what he does, and we will do what we need to do. However, whatever we see that he does and whatever we do will just be the tip of the iceberg.