Under the Dome: Lawmakers may revisit rules after losing days to winter weather

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Ice and snow accumulates in Montgomery, Ala. on Tuesday January 28, 2014. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Ice and snow accumulates in Montgomery, Ala. on Tuesday January 28, 2014. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Lawmakers said they had no choice but to convene last week, despite weather that virtually shut down the state. It’s prompting discussion that the rules governing the Legislature should be changed to prevent it from happening again.

The House convened Tuesday with only 40 of the chamber’s 102 members present, and adjourned for lack of a quorum. The Senate managed to meet Tuesday, but with only 22 of 35 members present. Leadership in both chambers urged members to stay home if the conditions were too treacherous. Still, the chambers themselves had to convene Tuesday.

That, said House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, was because the rules of the chamber do not allow leadership to change meeting dates after they have been set. The Alabama Constitution allows the governor to convene the Legislature outside Montgomery or move it to another location should it “become impossible or dangerous for the legislature to meet or remain at the Capitol,” but is silent about whether anyone can change meeting times of the chambers because of emergencies.

In addition, the rules of the Legislature require the bodies to reconvene at 10 a.m. the following day, if no quorum is present. With roads still treacherous on Wednesday, both Hubbard and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, decided to cancel legislative business, losing a legislative day.

“It’s really something we never intended,” Hubbard said Thursday. “The rule needs to be there, and there needs to be a rule (so) if there is a filibuster, you need to come back the next day.”

Talk about making the change began Tuesday afternoon in the Senate, when Marsh and Senate Minority Leader Vivian Davis Figures, D-Montgomery, both said they were looking for ways to prevent lawmakers from coming to Montgomery during dangerous weather situations. Although the proposal is still being developed, Hubbard said Thursday he expected it to allow leadership to reschedule meeting days should the governor declare a state of emergency for the entire state.

Changing the rules requires the approval of four-fifths of the membership to take effect, but Hubbard said he expected the votes to be there.

“After seeing what happened this week, it can’t happen (again),” he said. “It may not happen again for 50 years, but it’s incumbent on us to have a rule in place.”

Rep. Greg Wren, R-Montgomery

Rep. Greg Wren, R-Montgomery

Wren answers the call

Despite the cancellation of business Wednesday, the House was still technically in session, and there was a representative at the podium for the extremely brief meeting.

“We did open the House,” said Rep. Greg Wren, R-Montgomery, on Thursday. “Clay Redden, assistant Clerk of the House, was present, I was present. Between the two of us, we went back and forth with the prayer and Pledge of Allegiance and roll call to establish a quorum, and there wasn’t one. So that caused us to adjourn.”

The “extensive prayer,” Wren said, called for aid for those impacted by the weather and for the efforts of first responders in the weather. The representative drove from his east Montgomery home to the chamber, saying it “took awhile to find roads that were passable.”

“Sometimes unique things like this happen in government,” he said. “We just have to operate as normal, even when things don’t appear that way.”

Rep. Jim Patterson, R-Meridianville

Rep. Jim Patterson, R-Meridianville

Montgomery or bust

Rep. Jim Patterson, R-Meridianville, left early enough for the session Tuesday that he avoided the worst of the weather and managed to be in Montgomery all three days this week.

It’s a more notable feat when you consider the Madison County representative lives closer to Tennessee’s capital of Nashville (90 miles away) than his own state’s (200 miles away).

“Our roads are open,” he said. “It’s really Cullman south where the problems are.”

– posted by Brian Lyman

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