By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
One emerging theme in the Legislature this year is lawmakers pushing proposals which would alter, undo or turn upside down the state policies and procedures that have irritated them over the last year or so.
Some might be sensible, while some are downright bad ideas. In any case, it’s clear that the Legislature came back to Montgomery ready to reassert itself after a year of Gov. Kay Ivey steering the ship solo.
Senate Bill 97 from Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, as originally written would put the Legislature in the emergency declaration business by limiting such orders to 14 days unless they approve the extension. The Speaker and Senate Pro Tem could approve an extension jointly if the Legislature were out of session.
Senate Bill 290 from Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, would prohibit Alabama governors or executive agencies from entering into contracts larger than $5 million without the Legislature’s approval. Similarly, House Bill 392 from Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, would require any state agency or department planning to spend more than $10 million or 5% of their annual appropriation from the General Fund, whichever is less, to first be approved by a newly formed Oversight Committee on Obligation Transparency, not the Contract Review Committee. Neither bill would stop Ivey’s prison contract plan, but they are clearly in response to it.
And House Bill 21 from Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden, would allow the Legislature to call itself into a special session. Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road has a companion bill in the Senate that could come up as soon as today. In fact, some version of all these bills could easily pass the Legislature in the near future.
Those who know me well know I’m a Parrotthead, having scoured the far reaches of the Jimmy Buffett catalog for buried treasure. The Mobile native has a somewhat obscure song titled “Permanent Reminder of a Temporary Feeling,” which playfully tells of episodes in which impulsive choices leave people with unanticipated long term consequences. A tattoo, a drunken wedding in Vegas and other “accidents.” Here’s a stanza:
Vegas in the rain, drunk on cheap champagne
He hears out of tune synthesized chapel bells Painfully ringing.
Where’s his limo ride? Who’s this foreign bride? Is this really Elvis spinning round the ceiling?
Permanent reminder of a temporary feeling,
Forgotten fabrications in the chapels of love.
What is this ring on his finger? Why is he kneeling?
She’s just a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.
I don’t think the Legislature is drunk. I do believe these bills are impulsive choices that could come with significant long term negative consequences. Had the state of emergency proposal been in effect last year, the Legislature would have had to come back three times during its mid-session hiatus in the heat of the pandemic to vote on whether or not Ivey’s orders could stand. After June, the Speaker and President Pro Tem could have jointly handled that responsibility, and they are great public servants who surely would have made prudent decisions. But what of the next ones in those roles or the ones 30 years from now? Moreover, they weren’t elected statewide by the people of Alabama to make those decisions.
On the contract approval bills, I certainly understand the sentiment. Oversight and accountability are basic functions of the Legislature, especially on fiscal matters. However, these ceilings are so low that they are likely to cause a bottleneck of epic proportions in the process for some relatively routine contracts. Should the Contract Review Committee have more teeth in delaying or even nullifying contracts? Perhaps. The committee’s function of making agencies answer for contracts has by itself led to the cancelling of some suspect deals. But writing into our constitution an amendment that gives so little flexibility to the executive branch seems like something we are bound to change our minds about in the future.
My least favorite of all these proposals is the one allowing the Legislature to call itself into special session, which is interesting because it seems to have the most support generally. The House Constitution, Campaigns & Elections Committee had the good sense to kill this legislation with Chairman Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, explaining that it would essentially turn the Legislature into a full-time branch without the resources and staff to accommodate it. That’s a good point and it is well taken. My problem, however, is that this proposal undermines a fundamental limit on the authority of government. I’m afraid the bill sponsors and the conservative groups supporting this legislation are forgetting some of the basic constraints put on the Legislature in the constitution. They say it would restore the balance of power in state government, but anyone with a basic understanding of Alabama politics knows that the Legislature is by far the most powerful branch. The reason it is only allowed to meet for 30 legislative days within 105 calendar days is to limit what it can do. Allowing the Legislature to meet and pass legislation whenever it wants erodes Alabama’s structural constraints on government and is the opposite of conservative. Further, the governor’s veto is purely symbolic, overridden by the same simple majority it takes to pass legislation in the first place. So, theoretically any Legislature in the future could call itself into special session, pass whatever it wants with no check from the executive, and we’d be at the mercy of our elected judiciary to sort it out. That sounds more like an imbalance of power.
I get it. There was no legislative process to the orders that came from Ivey throughout this whole thing. But that’s by design. Anyone who has been through a tornado or a hurricane or an oil spill knows there are things the state needs to do immediately without worrying about counting the votes. Many of those public health authorities were given to the executive by the Legislature in the wake of the Spanish Flu epidemic from more than 100 years ago. So were price-gouging laws, by the way. Should we only allow the attorney general to enforce consumer protections when the Legislature agrees?
I can’t help but notice that these proposals are sponsored and supported by Republicans who weren’t in state government when Democrats dominated the Legislature. I recommend they consult with those who were to ask what might have happened back then if the Legislature could call itself into special session, cancel contracts and nullify executive orders. Ask them what Lowell Barron and Roger Bedford might have done with that power. Ask them what Paul Hubbert could have done with that kind of power. And if you think the balance of power can’t change between parties, it can certainly change between factions. Trust me, brother, you don’t want to be on the wrong side of that, especially because of a law you made.
We don’t make laws and constitutional amendments for the short term. We make them for the longer term.
The larger point is that, if passed, these could all be permanent reminders of temporary feelings. Some lawmakers aren’t happy about the public health orders, the prison contracts or not being involved in some of the emergency decisions last year, among other things. All that is irritating and invites an impulse to fix something. But let’s step back and be smart. Let’s think through all of the potential negative consequences that could exist in the long term if we put these proposals in the constitution just to satisfy a temporary frustration.