Problem is, neither picture is reassuring when it comes to deciding who can best replace Bob Riley, the two-term governor.
Both Ron Sparks, the Democratic agriculture commissioner from Fort Payne, and Robert Bentley, the retired physician and state legislator from Tuscaloosa, were mostly even-tempered during their hour on stage. Both studiously followed their notes as they answered questions on taxes, health care, education, gambling and other matters. For most of the time, the candidates avoided taking ugly shots at each other, though both amped up the rhetoric during closing remarks.
Let’s face it, whether intentionally or not, Sparks and Bentley were lulling us with niceness.
But niceties alone will not effectively lead this state to a prosperous future. In future debates and on the campaign trail leading to the Nov. 2 election, we’ll need more specifics than were provided Thursday night.
Bentley was true to form. He is the race’s conservative. He doesn’t believe the state’s tax system unfairly burdens the poor. He’s a doctor who believes federal health-care reform was the “absolutely worst” bill ever passed by Congress. He’s the populist who, while personally opposed to wagering, will “let the people decide” on gambling.
Sparks didn’t stray from expectations, either. He bragged on his success on agricultural trade with Cuba. He repeated his scapegoating of illegal immigrants, an issue deserving less airtime than, say, our multiple years of mid-year slashing of the state’s education budget. And he repeatedly raised his campaign’s Topic A – regulating and taxing gambling to generate revenue.
The real gamble is the way Alabama raises money. Under our system, Alabama puts itself in a bind, relying on inconsistent revenue sources that leave the state lacking. Those deficiencies, in turn, produce worse-than-needed results.
Our feast-or-famine tax collections tend to keep state budgets on the brink. Montgomery engages annually in an act of fantasy. We are like the farmer hoping against hope that his crop will come in so handsomely that he’ll have enough to pay off the bank and never have to borrow again. Yet, that day never comes, and it won’t without fundamental changes.
This is no rational way of building roads, educating children, guarding the public’s safety and caring for the least in society. Discussing system reforms would be a rational way for Bentley and Sparks to campaign.