Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Ron Sparks spoke before an audience of about 75 at the Madison County Democratic Women's luncheon last Thursday. He reminded them he won re-election decisively in 2006 and has been elected Agriculture Commissioner twice, touted his accomplishments in that role and said Alabama will need courageous leadership for the tough times ahead. Sparks reiterated his plan for an education lottery and gambling tax to fund education and Medicaid in Alabama and expressed support for President Obama's stimulus package (ARRA) and health care reform plan. He was questioned about constitutional reform but maintained his opposition to a convention, citing the potential for tax increases and lobbyist involvement.
Ron Sparks shines in venues like this one. His stump speech is fairly well polished now and hits all his major campaign themes — a record of electability, leadership, gambling revenue and (this was recently added) health care. Questions were generally friendly, although this crowd was pretty tough on constitutional reform and one woman questioned him on the death penalty — Sparks supports it. He got big applause on a mention of the 10 Commandments, criticism of the Tea Parties, opposition to charter schools — “I will not start dividing our children and segregating our children in Alabama” — and support for health care reform.
Details, with video, below the fold.
Leadership and a record of accomplishments are a central theme of Sparks' campaign.
“The food that you eat today is safer because of the work we've done at the Department of Agriculture. … I have been relentless when it comes to food safety, because I will not let products come into Alabama that has not been produced at the same standard that my farmers produce it. “
Sparks cited improvements in school nutrition programs, the farm to school program, nutrition and physical education programs as concrete examples of his accomplishments at the Department of Agriculture. He also touted the jobs created because he pioneered increased trade with Cuba in poultry and wood products. He has also established a trade office in India for access to that emerging market for agricultural products. “When you travel the world, not only do you sell the products that we have in Alabama, but people are envious of Alabama. People want to be like Alabama. People want to have the same privileges that we have in Alabama.”
He told the group this is the beginning of a new era, one in which Alabama faces will face tough economic decisions.
“I can't run for re-election. … I've made the decision that I want to be the governor for the state of Alabama, because I realize that there are some tough decisions that have got to be made. And I believe that the next governor has got to have the courage and the leadership that no governor has ever had before, because I don't believe Alabama has ever seen the economic crisis that we have in Alabama today. I don't believe we've every crossed that road before.” He praised President Barack Obama for the stimulus funds which preserved teaching jobs and bridged a shortfall in Medicaid funding. He cited a shortage of school supplies in Alabama classrooms and said that is not where Alabama wants to be.
“We've got some tough times ahead of us. … I don't care what community you live in, I don't care how much money your mom and dad makes, I don't care the color of your skin … If I become the governor I will lay the lottery scholarship back on the table so that we educate every child in Alabama.“
Even though the state faces large shortfalls in funding for education and Medicaid in the near future, Sparks vowed “I will not raise your taxes or the business taxes of Alabama.” Instead he proposes a new revenue stream based on a gambling tax.
“We have got to have a revenue stream. I don't know about you, but I have the courage to step out there and try to make some tough decisions to educate our children. … 75% of the people that gamble in Mississippi don't live in Mississippi.” Sparks said Republican Gov. Haley Barbour would never give up a casino because of the revenue they produce. He says Alabama can also have a share of that gaming revenue if we “tax it, control it and have a statewide gaming commission.” Later, in response to a question about the tax rate he would impose on gambling revenue, Sparks said “I would tax it at the same rate that our neighboring states are taxing gambling.”
He also got in a not so subtle dig at his opponent, Congressman Artur Davis, whose 7th district includes Selma, “If I can bring one job to Selma Alabama … that's more jobs that's been brought to Selma Alabama in the last 6 years. … It's about quit promising, promising and promising … we've had every study that you can study in the Black Belt and absolutely nothing has been done about it. … It's time for the fancy speeches and the rhetoric and the demagoging to go away. It's time to move Alabama forward.”
On the subject of leadership, Ron Sparks says everyone will have a seat at his table.
“When I become the governor … everybody has got a seat at my table. I don't care if you're BCA, I don't care if you're AEA, I don't care if you're ALFA, I don't care if you're AFL-CIO. I don't care who you represent, you've got a seat at my table.” Gov. Riley and the Republicans also came in for some criticism for going after the seats of sitting legislators. Sparks says this is the most important election of our lives. He also touted his work for the Democratic party and got in a surprising (at least to me) dig at Democratic attorney Jere Beasley:
“I have fought for the Democrat party, I have never turned away, I have campaigned with every young candidate that's has ever campained. I've campaigned with every judge and you can rest assured, Jere Beasley won't tell me who the next Supreme Court Justice will be in Montgomery, Alabama. The people will have a voice in who the Supreme Court is. Today, you don't have any representation unless it's Sue Bell Cobb.”
Sparks' position on health care reform has been a bit muddled since he told a Business Council of Alabama (BCA) group he didn't support the current bills on August 1st, then came out strongly in support of the House bill on October 23rd before a NAACP crowd in Birmingham. He took attempted to clarify his position Thursday.
“I support President Obama's health care package, I support public option, I have been vocal about it and I've had people to say different things. Let me tell you what I said. In BCA … I want you to hear what I said. They asked me that question. The first word out of my mouth is I said, look there are 48 million people in this country that are out of health care. Yes we do need health care reform. At that point in time it was August. The health care package debate had just begun. And I said Congress should slow down and make sure that we get it right But do we need health care reform? Absolutely. Now does that say to you that I'm against health care reform? Absolutely not. I am for it. I am for any health care program that will give the people of Alabama and America affordable health care. What is a life worth?”
Here is the full text of Sparks' remarks at the BCA forum on August 1st — for the record, the legislation being debated in the House at that time did include a public option. You can listen to the audio at this link.
“You know we have 48 million Americans without health care in this country today. Do we need reform in health care? Absolutely. But do I support the current legislation that we have on the table? No I don't. And I commend Congress by slowing this down and not moving swiftly, but we have definitely got to get our hands around health care reform in this country. You can rest assured. You know, I'm going to do the same thing for businesses as I've done for farmers. I've continued to fight for farmers for the last seven years to see that the federal government don't put them out of business. That's exactly what I'm going to do for the business community, I'm going to fight to make sure the government don't put them out of business. But we need health care reform in this country.”
The final health care legislation is likely to allow individual states to opt out of the public option. A member of the audience asked if Sparks would work to make sure Alabama does not opt out? His response was, “My position has been pretty clear. I've supported the Obama health care package, I support the public option. Everybody ought to have the oppportunity for affordable health care. My position is very clear.”
In my opinion his position would have been clearer had he stuck to a simple “yes” or “no” response to that question. It isn't clear whether the legislatures or the governors will make the opt out decision, but either way Alabama's next governor will likely have to do some arm twisting to make sure we have access to the public option. The answer he gave offers no clue how hard he would work (even whether he would work) or how much political capital he would spend to stop an opt out move. See Davis' position on opt-out here, if you're curious.
Ron Sparks didn't address constitutional reform at all in the body of his speech, but it came up as soon as he opened the floor for questions.
The first three questions dealt with reforming the 1901 Constitution and whether he would support a constitutional convention.
First questioner: “… I have a very dear passion and that is that I think our state needs constitutional reform and we'd like very much for you to join us with that and make it happen because it's something that's going to make a big difference in the long term.
Sparks: “Let me give you what my position has been on constitution reform. I believe we need to be very careful with a constitution convention. The reason I think we need to be careful is because with a convention 9 times out of 10 your taxes are going to go up. I believe we need to take the constitution, amendment by amendment, and deal with it. That's how I believe we need to do it. That's been my position from the beginning and that's my position now. Let me be honest with you. We have 135 wonderful legislators and 35 Senators, but we have between 500 and 600 registered lobbyists. If you think there's a way that we could keep the lobbyists out of the constitution convention process, I just don't believe it personally. But I do believe we could deal with it amendment by amendment. That's been my position and that's how I would deal with it as governor.”
Second questioner: “Anyone who supports reform in that manner, as you do, it's never going to happen.”
Sparks: “That's not necessarily true. There's been a lot of reforms that have taken place. I trust …”
Second questioner: “Well the only one I'm aware of is the Judicial Article … and that was by the Senator who's now dead. I don't know what year it was … but I don't think it will ever happen if you do it article by article.”
Sparks: “I'm going to be perfectly honest with you. The constitution is certainly an important piece that we ought to be looking at, but it's not the most important thing in my vision. We've got folks that are hurting in Alabama. We've got counties that have 24% unemployment. We've got 40% of our children that's not going to school, that's dropping out. We've got 70% of our kids that's not getting pre-K. We've got people that are hurting in Alabama. We've got a hole in Medicaid. That's where we need to be making some focuses in Alabama, is to try to shore up some of those problems that we've got. Certainly, we ought to deal with the constitution, and we all have a different way that we ought to deal with it. But we've got some problems that we need to be dealing with and the constitution, in my opinion shouldn't be the most important thing at this point in time.”
Third questioner: “Sir. One of the things that always entroubles me about what you said, is that if we get a new constitution it will raise taxes. You know that's been a buzzword for people that oppose this reform for a long time and it isn't necessarily true. And one of the things that I want to know is, what is wrong with paying a little more taxes? Alabama pays less taxes than almost any other state in the union. And I don't understand why in this .. when we have so many wealthy people in this state, that we can't pay more for the things that we want? What is wrong with more taxes?”
Sparks: “There's nothing wrong. Let me give you my example. The people that I'm concerned about are your farmers in the state of Alabama. Current use. … In 1950 and 1960 we had 250,000 family farms. Today we've got 45,000 family farms. … I personally don't want people of other countries putting food on my table like they're putting gasoline in my automobile. I think we have to be very cautious. I'm not saying we shouldn't do anything. But I'm saying that shouldn't be, at this point in time in the game, a constitution convention shouldn't be the most important thing that we ought to be dealing with in Alabama. We ought to be dealing with our children, education, health care, jobs, trade, roads, infrastructure. Those are things that I want to see get accomplished. And I will deal with the constitution, but I'm not for a constitution convention.”
In response to a later question, Sparks said he would support limited home rule, done amendment by amendment.
The first questioner also got the last word, again on constitutional reform: “Please keep in mind that a constitution convention might be the thing that would give us some guidelines for the future. We're not that cynical that it has to be in the hands of the lobbyists and the people that are out just for gain because we believe firmly that the people of Alabama can handle that … We would like for you to put that in the back of your mind and let it come to the front when the time is right.” [Applause]
Sparks: “Absolutely. I hear you. I hear your passion, I hear your concern. Sometimes we in the Democrat party have different ways that we want to get to the same conclusion and I just have a different opinion of the direction that I want to go. I do respect what you're saying, I do hear what you're saying and I don't take anything off the table. Certainly you ought to be heard and if that's the will of the people then we ought to look at it. But I do believe we can accomplish the same goals … amendment by amendment, I believe that we can do that and that would be the direction that I would want to go.”
He clearly did not bring the audience around to his way of thinking about constitution reform. A woman I spoke with afterwards said he made a good speech, but “he lost half the room on constitution reform.” Part of Sparks' problem was that this audience is quite well informed on the history and shortcomings of the 1901 Constitution. They are convinced, as he apparently is not, that restrictions imposed by our constitution are at the root of many of the more pressing problems he cites — education funding, jobs, roads and infrastructure. Since 1901 the Legislature has succeeded in revising only the Judicial Article. That was done in 1973 under the leadership of the late Howell Heflin, then the newly elected Chief Justice. Obviously, article by article (and I feel sure this is what Commissioner Sparks means when he says “amendment by amendment') revision of the Alabama constitution can be expected to take several hundred more years.