For most of my life Alabama gubernatorial candidates have run on a platform of let’s take politics out of the road programs and highway department and turn it over to an impartial commission that will build roads where they are most needed and best for the state as a whole. As soon as the election is over the talk and promises end and we are back to politics as usual. Because the Highway Department has been the best political tool any Governor could have in state government, it has been the golden goose of Alabama politics. Governors like Big Jim Folsom and George Wallace used the immense power of the road-building agency to raise enormous amounts of campaign money as well as using their discretion of where road projects went to reward their friends and punish their enemies. It has been used repeatedly to strong arm legislators to vote with the administration. In fact a certain road or bridge that might be dear to a legislator may be used over-and-over again to garner his or her vote on more than one bill or project.

The Highway Director, now called the Transportation Department Director, is appointed by the Governor and wields tremendous power. There has long been a joint House and Senate Highway Committee which has strived to craft a long-term highway plan that might exist beyond a governor’s four year reign. However, this group of legislators was no less political than previous governors. Most of the long-range road projects they promoted or recommended were in their districts.

This year’s recently completed session took significant steps toiward reform in this area. The Alabama House passed legislation to establish a commission to oversee the State Department of Transportation. The legislation creates a nine-member commission with staggering terms that would hire the transportation director and set policy for the department. The Governor would appoint the commission members for each of the nine divisions. All members would serve six year terms after the initial staggering term period.

State Senator, Bobby Denton, D-Muscle Shoals, has spearheaded this effort to put the Highway Department under a separate commission for decades. Because Governor Riley is in support of the concept, Denton’s efforts may now come to fruition. Unlike many Governor’s who ran on the issue and then reneged, Riley made it a part of his campaign platform and stayed the course.

This speaks volumes to me about Riley’s intent to seek a second term. If this is not a sign that he wants one term and goes home to the ranch, I don’t what is, unless it is offering a $1.2 Billion tax plan that basically taxes those who supported you and voted for you to be Governor.

The concept of a Highway Commission is a good idea. It should give more stability to the state’s highway program. Many of our sister states like South Carolina, Georgia, and Arkansas all operate under a commission and they seem to work effectively.

The legislation passed in the House but died in the Senate this past session, but look for it to be revived next year.

On another note, the Riley Administration has quietly made two wise moves. They are preparing to solicit proposals from private developers for building a new hotel at the current site of the Gulf State Park. It has become extremely outdated and the land is very valuable. A developer would build and own the hotel and pay rent to the state for use of the land.

Also, State ABC Administrator, Emory Folmar, says the state plans to phase out wine sales in most state-run liquor stores. Folmar said 96 percent of wine sales are made in other stores and the state has very little expertise in the market.