2/1/2007 - February 2007 - Educational Update - A New Quadrennium in the Alabama Legislature - 2007
AN EDUCATIONAL UPDATE FROM
THE SOUTHEAST LAW INSTITUTETM, INC.
To: SLI Supporters
Date: February 2007
From: A. Eric Johnston
Re: A New Quadrennium in the Alabama Legislature - 2007
On March 6, 2007, the first of the next four years of the legislative process with the recently elected legislature will begin. The organizational meetings of the Senate and the House of Representatives took place in January. At that time, leadership was elected and operating rules adopted.
As a brief primer, Senators and Representatives are elected to four-year terms. With the reelection of some incumbents and election of new members, there is always a determination of who will lead each body and by what rules they operate. Those in each house who hold the majority vote will control the process. For the past four years, the process has been extremely difficult for Republicans, conservative Democrats, and those who support issues identified with those groups. This quadrennium, the four year legislative period, will be worse.
In the last quadrennium, the powers of the Lieutenant Governor, who is the presiding officer of the Senate, were significantly curtailed. Authority was given to the President Pro Tempore, Senator Lowell Barron. This time, Senator Barron has stepped back and Senator Hinton Mitchem will serve as President Pro Tempore, but with even more draconian rules for the Senate. The House remains under the same leadership and significant change is not expected in the way it operates. However, in both chambers, controlling members are given committee chairmanship and committee membership is stacked to give them the votes they need to pass or defeat bills assigned to them.
When a member wishes to introduce legislation, it is "dropped in" and assigned to a committee. The Senate has the more troublesome procedure. The Lieutenant Governor may make the assignment with the agreement of the President Pro Tempore. If there is disagreement, the majority leader, Senator Zeb Little, makes the assignment. Therefore, significant power is concentrated in the hands of few. What is the effect of this?
In the weeks leading up to the January organizational session, the newspapers were full of reports on the struggle for control of the Senate. The Senate Republicans and some Democrats were said to have joined to form a majority and would therefore have control of the Senate. The Democrats who had joined with the Republicans included Senators Phil Poole and Rodger Smitherman. However, in the day before election of leadership, both of these senators changed sides back to the majority Democrat group. It appears one of the benefits Senator Smitherman got from the swap was that he will be President Pro Tempore in two years, the most powerful position in the Legislature.
The rules drafted by the new leadership were written significantly to benefit the Alabama Education Association and to give stronger control on most issues to the majority members. For example, the Committee on Rules may require a special rule that debate on any bill shall not exceed thirty minutes, unless twenty-one of senators vote otherwise. However, on the special education trust fund budget and general fund budget, only eighteen votes are required to uphold a limit on debate. The idea of automatically limiting debate is a new obstacle for the minority. This means debate and filibuster, effective tools to the minority, can be limited.
So, why are we concerned about this? The reality is that the ability to pass legislation that protects the family, moral values, and individual liberties will be more limited than in the past. Two prime examples are abortion and gambling. Because this is the first year of the four year term, the danger of objectionable legislation passing into law is more likely than later in the term due to members' concern for the voters back home.
Concerning abortion legislation, Senator Rodger Smitherman is again chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Smitherman has almost totally blocked any abortion regulatory legislation from even coming up for a vote in his committee. The pro-life community had high hopes of being able to pass significant legislation this year, including an Alabama human life amendment which would amend the Alabama Constitution to recognize life beginning at conception, or at least, significant regulatory legislation which would protect the lives of the unborn and improve women's healthcare. It is not likely any of this legislation will pass.
Gambling is a significant issue in Alabama. The Alabama Supreme Court continues to properly enforce Alabama gambling laws to find variations of gambling unlawful. Through the years, gambling interests have attempted to legalize through legislation various forms of gambling and have been successful to a small extent. However, the possibility of passing legislation to "legally" establish new types of gambling increases significantly with the new legislature. Done properly, such laws could avoid being found unlawful by the Alabama Supreme Court.
Another area of concern has been legislative abuse of passing certain local acts, that is effecting only small cities, that are otherwise prohibited by the Alabama Constitution. General statutes prohibit small cities from enacting local laws to permit, for example, the sale of alcoholic beverages, because a small city's infrastructure, i.e., police, emergency medical care, etcetera, is not sufficient to deal with attendant problems. The Alabama Constitution says a local law may not conflict with a general law. Yet, the Legislature has passed at least five local laws permitting referenda on the sale of alcoholic beverages in small cities, violating the Alabama Code and Alabama Constitution. Though this issue is currently being litigated, this "imperial rule" is another concern for the next four years.
We expect to see a number of threatening bills introduced by the opening of the session on March 6. More so than ever, pro-family groups will find themselves in a defensive posture.
None of this effects our ability to work presently with the various agencies of state government such as the executive offices and agencies of the governor, the State Board of Education, State Board of Health, and other agencies that protect rights and liberties. However, if objectionable laws are passed, this could result in those agencies being put under pressure to carry them out which may in turn have a detrimental effect on the family and individual liberties.
In conclusion, you will hear a great deal of rhetoric about the goodness and evenhandedness of this new legislature. More often than not, when it comes to dealing with certain issues, these words do not exist.
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