The Gambler

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The Alabama Legislature has now adjourned its First Special Session of 2016 Sine Die. As Legislators leave Montgomery the words of songwriter Don Shultz as recorded by Kenny Rogers in his classic ballad, The Gambler, come to mind:

On a warm summer’s eve

On a train bound for nowhere

I met up with the gambler

We were both too tired to sleep

So we took turns a-starin’

Out the window at the darkness

The boredom overtook us,

And he began to speak

He said, “Son, I’ve made a life

Out of readin’ people’s faces

Knowin’ what the cards were

By the way they held their eyes

So if you don’t mind me sayin’

I can see you’re out of aces

For a taste of your whiskey

I’ll give you some advice”

So I handed him my bottle

And he drank down my last swallow

Then he bummed a cigarette

And asked me for a light

And the night got deathly quiet

And his faced lost all expression

He said, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy

You gotta learn to play it right

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em

Know when to fold ’em

Know when to walk away

And know when to run

You never count your money

When you’re sittin’ at the table

There’ll be time enough for countin’

When the dealin’s done

Every gambler knows

That the secret to survivin’

Is knowin’ what to throw away

And knowin’ what to keep

‘Cause every hand’s a winner

And every hand’s a loser

And the best that you can hope for is to die

in your sleep

And when he finished speakin’

He turned back toward the window

Crushed out his cigarette

And faded off to sleep

And somewhere in the darkness

The gambler he broke even

But in his final words

I found an ace that I could keep

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em

Know when to fold ’em

Know when to walk away

And know when to run

You never count your money

When you’re sittin’ at the table

There’ll be time enough for countin’

When the dealin’s done

When the Governor issued his Call for the Special Session he identified two primary issues for the Legislature to consider during the Session – a possible lottery and the disposition of the BP Settlement money. In their own ways both of these issues were a gamble. Actually, anytime the Legislature is in Montgomery it is a gamble of sorts.

The first three verses of this song summarize feelings that are very common among those who are regulars in dealing with the Legislature. In order to succeed in dealing with any Legislative issue you have to be able to read people’s faces, look into their eyes and know the motivations of each Legislator before a word is ever spoken. While legislative advocacy might be considered “political Science” in reality is far better described as an “art” rather than a “science”. As the gambler says “If you’re going to play the game boy, you gotta learn to play it right”.

During debate on the BP legislation Sen. Rodger Smitherman (D-Birmingham) was at the microphone in a discussion (or as Members of the Senate like to say “dialoging with my colleague”) with the President Pro Tempore, Del Marsh (R-Anniston). Smitherman alluded to the definition of politics indicating it was the art of compromise. During this Special Session compromise was the word of the Session. (You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em)

The first week of the Session was dominated by the lottery proposal in the Senate and the BP Settlement issue in the House and then in the second week the issues swapped. To get a lottery Bill through the Senate Sen. Jim McClendon (R-Springville) was put in a position of having to accept amendment after amendment in order to reach the needed 21 votes required to pass a Proposed Constitutional Amendment in the Senate. The Proposed Amendment that finally passed the Senate was the Governor’s version not the version proposed by McClendon. McClendon was put in a position of having to ask the Senate to cloture (end debate) on his own Bill in order to just get a vote. He knew when to “fold ‘em”. When he presented the Governor’s version of the legislation he saw a light at the end of the tunnel that was not an on-coming train and he knew he could ‘hold ‘em”. After the House finally passed the Governor’s proposal the legislation went back to the Senate for concurrence in the House changes. It did not take long before it was evident in the eyes of various factions on the Senate Floor that the lottery was dead. Time to “fold ‘em”.

When the House passed the BP legislation it did so with a very strong vote, signaling to the Senate that the House would not accept any significant change to the legislation. As reported last week there were various groups within the Senate that had different designs on how the money should be split. After several days of filibustering the legislation, Sen. Del Marsh went to the microphone and indicated that he was prepared to end the Session without a resolution to the BP issue. Anyone who has ever played poker or been involved in a high stakes business deal knows that you never run a bluff that you are not prepared to have called. Marsh was gambling with the lifeblood of Medicaid and possibly the future productivity of the Alabama Senate when he indicated he was prepared to walk away with nothing. At the end of the process the South Alabama Senators, in consultation with their House counterparts, agreed to a deal that would net money for South Alabama road work and provide the needed funds for Medicaid for the next two years.

In the fourth verse Rogers sings that “Every gambler knows that the secret to survivin’ is knowin’ what to throw away and knowin’ what to keep ’cause every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser and the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep”. At the end of the day the South Alabama delegation realized that they had only one chance to resolve the issue this year. They ran a bluff that they were prepared to have called, that they would walk away if they did not get what they wanted (and felt they deserved). The bluff was not called, a compromise was reached and the State of Alabama came out a winner.

In the end, the advice that “there’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done” proved correct. South Alabama got $120 million for road work, the rainy day account was repaid, a large portion of the Alabama Trust Fund debt will be repaid and Medicaid has been made whole for FY 17 and will receive a nice boost towards the FY 18 budget. As one South Alabama Legislator commented Wednesday afternoon after the Legislature adjourned “You know, at times like we have had during this Session you find that you have made some new friends that you really never knew cared about you or your issue and you find that some that you thought were close really do not care”. Maybe The Gambler was correct when he said “the best you can hope for is to die in your sleep”.

The Alabama House will reconvene in Regular Session at Noon on Tuesday, February 7, 2017
The Alabama Senate will reconvene in Regular Session at Noon on Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The views and opinions contained in this report do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the clients of Public Strategies, LLC.