Saturday, December 4, 2010

Gary Palmer: The Special session is necessary

  The time has finally come. What we have needed and waited for, what was promised but never delivered, may about to finally be reality.

  On Wednesday, December 8th, the newly elected Alabama Legislature will go into a special session called by Gov. Bob Riley to take up the most comprehensive and most badly needed ethics and campaign finance reform legislation in Alabama’s modern history. The legislature will consider seven bills that constitute an historic transformation in state government and that will move Alabama to the top of the state rankings for tough ethics laws.

  Among the bills that will be taken up is a bill to amend the Alabama Code of Ethics to require the full disclosure of spending by lobbyists on all public officials and public employees and to end unlimited gift-giving to public officials and public employees.

  Another bill would ban “double dipping” Alabama taxpayers by prohibiting legislators from holding government jobs or their companies from receiving contracts paid for with government funds. The Budget Accountability Act will prohibit legislators from hiding appropriations that are being diverted to projects in their districts or to projects that benefit their political allies and will require state agency officials to report efforts to conceal appropriations.

  A fourth bill will grant subpoena power to the Alabama Ethics Commission, the only state ethics commission in the nation without such authority. A companion bill will  require legislators and other elected and appointed officials who are required to submit ethics disclosure reports to submit that information electronically which will be available to the public as a searchable database on the State Ethics Commission web site. That bill will also require mandatory ethics training for legislators, constitutional office holders, lobbyists, local officials and other elected and appointed officials.

  Two other bills are high profile and most needed for cleaning up state politics and political campaigns. For eight consecutive years, bills were introduced to ban all transfers of campaign contributions between Political Action Committees (PACs), yet were never passed. The Democrats who controlled the Alabama Legislature with supermajorities in both chambers failed to ban the practice even after a statewide poll in 2008 showed that 83 percent of Alabamians supported such a ban. With the Republicans now holding supermajorities in both the house and senate, the legislature is set to pass The Campaign Finance Transparency Act which will end the practice of laundering campaign contributions through multiple PAC-to-PAC transfers.

  The seventh bill would amend the Alabama State Code to prohibit the use of any state resources for political activity. This bill would end the practice of state and local government entities withholding money from their employees’ paychecks for the purpose of funding political action committees or otherwise influencing elections. For instance,  this bill will put a stop to the AEA intimidating any education employee or teacher into allowing money to be taken from their paychecks to fund the education union’s PAC.

  Some opponents of the special session have argued against holding it before the next regular session. Some opposition stems from a perception that the special session will be the equivalent of a “lame duck” with the same legislators who have previously killed these reforms. But in Alabama, newly elected legislators take office immediately following the election so this is not a “lame duck” session at all; participants will be the newly elected legislature with a super-majority of Republicans in both the house and senate.

  Jim Spearman, executive director of the Alabama State Democrat Party, contends that the special session is politically motivated and an unnecessary expense to the taxpayers. Though Spearman said that we need ethics reform, he accused Gov. Riley of wasting taxpayer money to take a “victory lap.”  Frankly, his complaints come across as extremely disingenuous, given the fact that his party could have passed these bills at any time during the 136 years they controlled the legislature.

  Moreover, the next regular session of the state legislature will not be convened for almost four months. Why give lobbyists four more months to buy influence with legislators? Why continue to allow PAC money to be laundered for four more months? The answer is clear… we cannot allow these practices to continue and the time to stop them is now.

  These bills deliver on promises that were made by the Democrat and Republicans as well as Gov. Riley during the 2006 election campaign. After the 2006 election, the Democrats held super-majorities in both the house of representatives and the senate. They had a chance, blew it and paid dearly in the last election.

  The Republicans now have super-majorities in both legislative chambers and are poised to make good on their commitments. Now is the time to get these reforms in place and clear the agenda for the tough issues this promising group of new leaders must address.

  This special session is absolutely necessary.

  About the author: Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.

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