Bibb Graves left legacy as “Schooling Governor”

Most states have a general fund budget. Alabama is one of only five states with two households.

Some of you have asked why we have two budgets – one for the general fund and one for education. Here’s why.

Education in Alabama was pathetically underfunded during and after the Great Depression. It is generous to simply say that the system was underfunded. Our schools resembled a third world country. We had two separate systems, one for white students and one for black students.

Many rural schools were one-room huts, as in the 19th century, with wood stoves for heating but no books or air conditioning. There were no buses to transport children so students really went barefoot and in many cases walked miles to and from school. That was for the white schools. You can only imagine the poor education black children were given.

Often teachers weren’t even paid. They were given scripts in the hopes of getting paid in the future.

We had a governor named Bibb Graves who was committed to making sure that education was a top priority in Alabama. He and the lawmaker created the budget for the Special Education Trust Fund. They provided for two tax revenues that were to be used for the new education budget. Education should be recipients of state sales tax and state income tax, a new tax system idea just created by the federal government.

Little did Graves know that these two sources of income would be the largest source of income for the state today. The Special Education Trust Fund’s small budget now dwarfs the general fund by more than a two-to-one ratio.

When I was first elected to the legislature in 1982, the general fund and education budgets were 50/50, even dead. Today the budgets that the legislature will pass will be at least 75% of education and about 25% of the general fund include.

Graves has left an indelible legacy as “Education Governor”. His efforts also improved higher education in the state. He founded colleges for teachers in Troy, Florence, Jacksonville and Livingston. He also stepped up funding at the state’s two flagship colleges.

The University of Alabama, and then the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, now Auburn University, received new educational grants.

Every university in the state has a main building, usually in the center of the campus, named for Governor Bibb Graves. This is entirely appropriate, as Graves left an educational legacy as governor.

He could be the greatest governor of Alabama. In fact, he was our only two-term governor between 1901 and 1954. Alabama law did not allow the governors to obey themselves. Therefore, a governor would have to sit out four years to run again. Graves was governor from 1927 to 1931 and from 1935 to 1939.

The only other two-term governor in the era without a successor was James E. “Big Jim” Folsom. He also had an indelible legacy. Many of the state’s highways were made of dirt and impassable when it rained. Most of the people in the state made a living from agriculture. When the streets were washed out, they could not bring their crops to market, so their years of labor were washed out.

Big Jim knew the plight of these peasants and, as governor, became the great friend of the little man and the country man. Big Jim has paved almost every country road in the state with his legendary farm-to-market road program. Ole Big Jim left these rural road works as his governor legacy.

His son Jim Folsom Jr. has his own legacy as governor. Although he had only been governor for two years, he brought Mercedes-Benz to Alabama. The German company now builds more luxury cars at its plant in Vance-Tuscaloosa than anywhere in the world. That first Mercedes coup from Folsom was the impetus for Hyundai, Honda and now Toyota-Mazda, which made Alabama the home of automotive engineering.

With these facilities come major spin-off accessory factories. We are now the second largest automobile state in America and ready to replace Michigan and become number 1 in the next few years.

These three governors – Graves in Education, Big Jim Folsom in Rural Road Construction, and Jim Folsom Jr. in Automobile Construction – made Alabama history.

Steve Flowers served in the Alabama Legislature for 16 years. Readers can email him at [email protected].