The next time I have the notion to go talk to Rep. John Rogers, I think I’ll spend a couple of hours huffing paint instead. Either option is dizzying and you can feel your brain cells committing suicide by the thousands. I went to his office on a whim and a left in a daze.
Before that, though, I’d been two blocks away, in a park on University Boulevard, where Rep. Jack Williams called a press conference. The choice of location was interesting, although I have to think there were better places to talk. In the background, a large earth-moving machine clawed at the dirt where the next red brick UAB facility will go. Fire trucks and ambulances raced up and down the Southside thoroughfare. Speaking to the reporters there, the Vestavia Hills Republican shouted over both. Behind Williams were more than a dozen people serving as press conference window dressing — doctors in white coats, construction workers in hardhats and contractors in pinstripe suits.
County Manager Tony Petelos was there, too, although he stood behind the TV cameras instead of in front of them with the rest. County Commissioners Jimmie Stephens and David Carrington stood out of the line of fire, as well. A few lobbyists from the Birmingham Business Alliance loitered among them.
Williams is an Over the Mountain Republican, but he’s taking a stand that probably won’t sit well with his constituency. Smartly, he’d already shopped his big story to the Birmingham News, so everyone there already knew what the press conference was about: Williams wants to restore the county’s occupational tax.
But his plan is not so tidy as that. Under the bills Williams will introduce, the legislature would restore the county’s former occupational tax of 0.45 percent, exactly what the county had before, enough to generate about $60 million of revenue a year. But this time, the county won’t get all that money. Instead, 20 percent would go to UAB to match research grants there.
What’s more, the tax includes a sunset provision. Once the county’s one-cent sales tax is done paying off $1 billion of school construction warrants, the occupational tax would go away, and the sales tax, which itself was supposed to sunset, would take its place, again with 20 percent going to UAB. Depending on the health of the economy, the sales tax could pay off the school construction debt sometime between 2017 and 2025.
At the press conference, Williams argued that the county has done what the legislature asked it to do. More than 700 jobs have been cut from the payroll. The general fund budget is a little more than half what it once was.
But despite those cuts, the county still has a $40 million operating deficit and will burn through nearly all of its reserves by the end of the year. Last week, to save money, the county defaulted on its latest general obligation debt payment — a debt that is supposed to be backed by the “full faith and credit” of the government that issues it. Unlike the sewer debt, these warrants have turned upside down, not because the county was swindled by Wall Street, as it was on its sewer debt, but because the local politicians and populace are unwilling to pay them.
Enough is enough, Williams said.
There are problems with Williams’ plan, however. It is unclear whether he can get the support in Montgomery he needs to pass the plan. Of all the people at the press conference Monday, Williams was the only lawmaker in the bunch.
Also, the county will probably need more than the $48 million a year the tax would provide to get the government upright. The county has a $40 million deficit, but even if you close that gap, making up the difference does not bring back one employee. It doesn’t restaff the revenue department to shorten license and car-tag lines. It doesn’t restaff general services to run elections. It doesn’t staff the new Bessemer jail.
Even more crucial, it doesn’t invest in capital upkeep, which the county has struck to nearly nothing in its current budget. That means that when computers wear out, the county won’t be able to replace them. When roofs leak, the county won’t be able to patch them. When roads crumble, the county won’t be able to pave them. This kind of deterioration is a less visible but much greater problem than the three- or four-hour inconvenience of standing in line at the courthouse for a new car tag. Prevention is not measured in ounces, nor is cure measured in pounds. Both are matters of dollars, and if allowed to continue on course, it will take a lot of dollars to fix the slow-motion mess in the making.
I asked Petelos if $48 million would be enough to fix the county’s problems. He would say only that, opposed to nothing at all, he’d take it.
Earmarking money for UAB might give some Republicans a politically defensible position from which to support Williams’ bill. But looking around on Monday, UAB didn’t appear to be doing too badly for itself. In nearly every direction some kind of construction was underway — a crane here, a bulldozer there. The University that Ate Birmingham was incessantly chewing.
Despite all this, Williams deserves credit for showing leadership. While other lawmakers are still concocting excuses, Williams has made a proposal that will likely anger many of his constituents. He has stuck his neck out when it was not politically wise to do so. That’s the mark of someone willing to be a statesman before a politician. (But let’s not forget the old joke: What the difference between a politician and a statesman? A statesman is a politician who’s dead.)
But leaving the press conference, I couldn’t help but walk those two blocks to Rogers office. I had to hear what the Godfather would have to say, and I got more than I wanted.
If you thought Rogers would support the bill because he works for UAB, you would be as wrong as I was.
His office looks out on University Boulevard. One whole side is nothing but windows, and outside the light has turned blinding, but somehow the room was still dark. The carpet is old, and the artwork around the room looks like it came from a 1970s truckstop. Rogers was sitting in a large leather chair. In the room were at least three different printers and fax machines. On the floor, propped against the front of his desk, is a rendering of a domed stadium — of the many such flights of fancy produced through the years by the BJCC and Rogers’ great Holy Grail.
His political satellite, Rep. Mary Moore, was there when I showed up unannounced and knocked on the door. I’ve blasted Rogers over and over again through the years, but I’ve never gotten under his skin. When I knocked on his door, you would have thought I was his best friend.
“It’s dead,” he said. “It’s a dead bill.” Rogers smiles when he says this. Rogers smiles a lot. He smiles at things that make grown men at the county courthouse sweat and cry. Rogers does not sweat.
He is a master of misdirection, and not everything he says is full of crap. He knows that half truth is more effective than a whole lie. Listening to him is like taking dictation from Napoleon on the History of the French Revolution.
Rogers does not take up as much of the wide leather chair as he once did. He’s lost a great deal of weight in the last few years, but he seems to have put a little back on. He’s still big and he’s old, but don’t believe for a minute he’s not mentally quick. Cerebrally, he dances like Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard. No matter how hard I try to pin him down on a position, he sidesteps to another, and debating him is exhausting. He’s been doing this for a long time.
“I like you, Kyle,” he said. “We don’t agree, but I like you. You know why I like you?”
I’ve heard Rogers say he likes me before. He says that to everyone he debates with, so much so that radio host Matt Murphy uses it as the anchor for his impersonation of the lawmaker. But he’s never asked whether I knew why. This time he explains it doesn’t do him much good to debate with people who agree with him. He likes to bounce his ideas, every possible move or political position, off people who will throw punches back. He has me locked in a Socratic dialectic, and by the end I’m ready to chug a milk jug full of hemlock.
It’s clear Rogers wants to kill the occupational tax, whether he says so or not, and he’s staked out two political positions he thinks are defensible.
First, he says, he does not want to pass an occupational tax until the county has filed its plan of adjustment with the bankruptcy court. Under Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the county must submit to the court and its creditors a plan to pay whatever it can feasibly pay to the court. Unfortunately, this is almost impossible for the county to do until it knows whether or not it will have an occupational tax to fix its general fund shortfalls. Rogers is trying to trap the county in a chicken-or-egg scenario where it can’t have one without first having the other. The argument is absurd, but it works for his purpose.
The second position is a philosophically more agreeable but politically impenetrable. Rogers says he does not want the urban areas, where the poor people live, left to pay the sewer debt by themselves. The outlying suburban and rural districts, where more wealthy people are on septic tanks, should have to bear some burden, too. That means a “clean water fee,” which has proven to be more politically unpopular than the occupational tax itself.
To be fair to Rogers, he has a point. Every commission district has elected someone who contributed to this crisis. Western Jefferson County elected Mary Buckelew, who sold out her constituents to Wall Street for high-fashion shoes and trips to New York spas. Gary White accepted bribes from sewer contractors. Bettye Fine Collins voted early on for sewer debt and derailed negotiations with Wall Street by turning them over to bond lawyer Bill Slaughter, who insisted the county had to pay all of its debts. Larry Langford made sure the fix was in, and Shelia Smoot strong-armed Wall Street into hiring investment bankers who did no work. If anyone in Jefferson County must pay a stupid tax, everybody should pay.
The trouble here, though, is that the general fund — the thing the occupational tax would fix — is a different issue than the sewer debt. Rogers insists otherwise — that both are part of the bankruptcy — which is one of those half-truths he finds so useful.
At one point, Rogers said he would vote for the occupational tax only if five Republicans voted for it also. (Presuming the county can get all of the Democrats other than Rogers and Moore, it would need three Republican votes to get the bill out of the House.) I asked Rogers whether he was a Republican now, and he laughed.
Rogers argues that every lawmaker proposes a bill so they can claim to have attempted to solve the problem when they were really obstructing someone else’s solution. It’s misdirection, again, he says. Only minutes later, he brags on the five different bills he has ready to go. A minute after that he says the county delegation might not even caucus and no bills will even be introduced.
And around and around we went. When I was a child, I was once left on a tilt-a-whirl by a carny who went on his lunch break. When I eventually got off the ride, I felt just as I did Monday afternoon in Rogers office. This is a ride that does not stop, until you scream for it to stop.
No matter the obfuscation, one thing is clear: Rogers has no intention of helping the county. He does not see what’s happening there as a crisis of existence that must be fixed. He wants to see the commission twist in the wind, and his wish might come true.
The Messenger Shoots Back is a column about political culture.