Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Steve Flowers: Inside The Statehouse: What the legislative special session is really for

  Gov. Bob Riley has called a special session of the Alabama Legislature to pass ethics reform legislation. The major issues expected to be addressed include prohibiting the transfer of campaign money between political action committees, which essentially hides the original source of campaign contributions. This practice of PAC to PAC money laundering has rendered our campaign finance laws meaningless. The call will also include giving subpoena power to the Alabama Ethics Commission as well as requiring more stringent disclosure of lobbyists’ spending on public officials.

  The more logical and prudent avenue to address these issues would have been the way that Governor-elect Robert Bentley proposed. Gov. Bentley suggested that the wisest and most cost effective approach would be to tackle these issues in a special session sandwiched in between the March regular session. It would not cost the already depleted general fund much needed resources because Bentley’s way would expend no extra money.

  In addition, the legislature is not even organized. The legislative makeup has changed dramatically. There will be a majority of new house and senate members. This super Republican majority is a body that ran on ethics reform and makes the package of bills conducive to passage regardless of whether they are passed in December or March.

  These new legislators took office immediately upon their election in November. However, even though they are already officially sworn in, they do not meet in an organizational session until January 11. Therefore, Riley is calling into special session a new group of green legislators who have no organization, no new speaker, no committee assignments, no desks, no voting machines, and most do not even know where the bathroom is yet. They will essentially be milling around without any organization addressing complicated legislation. It is analogous to putting a bunch of first graders in a classroom without a teacher on the first day of school.

  Special sessions are designed for emergencies. That is why they are described by our Constitution as extraordinary special sessions. The last lame duck governor who called a new legislature into special session was Frank Dixon in November of 1942. He asked lawmakers to pass emergency legislation making sure that state employees could enter the military for World War II without vacating their jobs.

  Even George Wallace, who had a penchant for calling special sessions, would not abuse this authority the way that Riley has chosen. This new legislature will pass the legislation in either December or March. Therefore, the only reason the session is being held is because Bob Riley wants to grab the glory from Dr. Bentley in a blatant show of political grandstanding at your expense.

  Our current ethics law was passed in the 1970s. These reform measures were an aftermath of the Watergate scandal. George Wallace was governor and he had pretty much dismissed ethics reform as an issue. However, lo and behold one day late in the legislative session Wallace decided to get a little good press. He called his legislative leadership team in and said there are only a few more legislative days left in the session and it’s too late for anything to pass, much less an ethics bill, so let’s appease the press and throw them a bone by introducing an ethics bill.

  They not only put in a bill, they used the toughest model act in the country. The bill was introduced in both chambers with an agreement that each body would kill the others bill. They went about with their plan and gleefully passed the strongest ethics law in the country although hardly any of the senators or house members were for the package.

  Today both Bentley and Riley would offer legislation to give subpoena power to the Ethics Commission and disallow PAC to PAC money laundering. However, they differ on one significant issue.

  Riley wants to end double dipping and prohibit all state employees from serving in elected offices, especially legislators. Riley is probably more in step with the majority of GOP legislators by outlawing elected officials from receiving two government paychecks.

  His successor, fellow Republican Robert Bentley, will not include disallowing double dipping in his proposals. He says he is opposed to prohibiting anyone from serving in our citizen legislature if elected by the people back home.

  One thing that will probably not be included in the Riley package is the limiting or exclusion of no-bid contracts by the governor or the elimination of the governor’s immediate family from benefiting from these contracts. That legislation was sent to him a few years ago and he vetoed it.

  See you next week.

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at

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