Under the Dome: Accountability Act, meet Revolving Door

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The Alabama State Capitol Building.  (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

The Alabama State Capitol Building. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

A bill placed on the floor of the Senate undergoes substantial alteration, to the point where it can reasonably be viewed as an entirely different piece of legislation.

One side warns, amid some tense scenes, that the changes violate the Constitution and could drag the state into court, while the other praises a major milestone in state history.

That’s a thumbnail sketch of how the Revolving Door Act, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, went from stitching a lobbying loophole to include many other ethical issues, via an expansive amendment sponsored by Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma. But it could also apply to the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act on Feb. 28 of last year, after Republicans in a conference committee significantly expanded a bill allowing waivers from education laws to include tax credits for private school education.

Republicans resisted the comparisons last week, saying the issues were not related. Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey, whose rulings on both proposals drew stinging criticism from Democrats, said Tuesday evening she did not rule on the Accountability Act report.

“That was not a ruling of the body,” she said. “That was a conference committee report, and the body adopted the conference committee report.”

The Accountability Act, like the Democrats’ amendment, also significantly expanded the scope of its bill’s initial intent, but Republicans argued last week that groups opposed to the AAA — including the Alabama Education Association, which has sued multiple times over it — objected in court to how lawmakers interpreted their internal rules. Nationwide, courts have long been reluctant to get involved in the rules governing legislative bodies.

In rejecting one of the AEA’s suits last year, the Alabama Supreme Court followed that line.

“That’s an issue from last year, which the courts apparently upheld,” Marsh said.

GOP members instead focused on Article IV, Section 45 of the state Constitution, which requires that all bills have one subject.

Ivey and others argued that the Sanders amendment — which tackles everything for lobbying by the ex-governors to football tickets to the state’s double-dipping law — created multiple subjects in the legislation, which they said could leave it open to legal challenges. That, Marsh said, would undermine the single purpose of the bill: ensuring that a two-year ban on former legislators’ lobbying activities applies to both Houses of the Alabama Legislature.

For their part, Democrats showed no hesitation or second-guessing of their actions.

“Let’s go all the way,” said Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, after the bill was passed. “Let’s clear up all the abuses in the ethics law. Let’s close the revolving door, but let’s also stop elected officials of family members from being hired the minute the family member leaves the body for another constitutional office.”

Sen. Tammy Irons, D-Florence (seen here as a member of the House in 2009) announced last week she would not seek re-election.  (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Sen. Tammy Irons, D-Florence (seen here as a member of the House in 2009) announced last week she would not seek re-election. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Irons bows out

It’s not often that a retirement announcement comes with polling numbers suggesting the incumbent should stick around. But that’s how Sen. Tammy Irons, D-Florence, relayed news of her departure Wednesday — and, perhaps, encouraged Democrats to look at what has been viewed as one of their vulnerable seats.

A freshman senator who previously served four years in the House, Irons had been thought to be endangered following redistricting in 2012. Her compact northwest Alabama district, centered on Democratic areas in Florence, had been stretched far to the east into Madison County, seemingly to give Republicans a better shot at the seat.

But the poll from Montgomery-based Southeast Research said Irons had a 60-40 advantage over Athens City Councilman Chris Seibert, a Republican, with the new Madison County territory assisting her.

“The proportion of Senate District 1 that is in Madison County has historically voted for Democratic candidates,” a release from the organization said. “Based on this poll, over eighty percent (80.5 percent) of the Madison County voters have already decided who they will vote for in this race and 73 percent stated they are voting for Tammy Irons.”

Irons also had, at last report, a significant fundraising edge over Seibert: the incumbent reported about $107,000 on hand, as opposed to $18,000 for Seibert. Businessman Jonathan Berryhill, who is also seeking the seat, has not yet filed a campaign finance report.

So why leave? Irons, a tax attorney, said the configuration of her district played a role — but for professional, not political reasons.

“Several new cases came in around Christmastime,” she said. “(Campaigning) is just going to take me a lot of hours, and it’s going to take me out of town a lot, and I’ve got to be there for my clients.”

At the close of qualifying Friday, Earl Gardner, a former candidate for the Alabama State Board of Education, and former Democratic Rep. Mike Curtis qualified to run for the party’s nomination for the seat.

Sen. Cam Ward during the Joint Legislative Prison Committee meeting at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala. on Tuesday August 27, 2013. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Sen. Cam Ward during the Joint Legislative Prison Committee meeting at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala. on Tuesday August 27, 2013. (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Open Meetings Act delays

Changes to the state’s Open Meetings Act have been delayed by negotiations between lawmakers and groups representing the state’s counties, municipalities and universities. However, the Senate sponsor says he hopes to have the bill up this week.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster and backed by Gov. Robert Bentley, is aimed at addressing three recent Alabama Supreme Court rulings that critics say weakened the law.

Among other issues, the court ruled that hazy language in the act allowed members of a public body to hold “serial meetings,” where boards can meet without public notice and discuss or decide official business, providing it is in a series of smaller meetings where those present never constitute a majority. That decision came out of a lawsuit over meetings held by Montgomery County Board of Education members with then-Montgomery County Superintendent of Education Barbara Thompson.

The serial meetings issue, Ward said Thursday, has been the sticking point with the groups involved.

“They want the language tightened up, so if two of them run into each other at Walmart, they’re not going to be committing a violation of the Open Meetings Act,” Ward said.

Ward said he expects the issues to be resolved this week, and plans a vote on the bill “come rain, snow or storms.”

The bills also would make it clear that governmental bodies must hold their meetings in public. In its ruling on an AEA suit against the Accountability Act last fall, the high court wrote that the Legislature was not required to do so.

Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia

Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia

Punishment for dog’s death

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill that would make the punishment for killing or injuring a service dog much more severe than if someone killed a person through criminal negligence.

Service animals, such as guide dogs, are defined as animals used to help someone with a disability.

The bill would make it a Class B misdemeanor to interfere with, obstruct or jeopardize the safety of the service animal or its user. Anyone who injures or kills a service dog with reckless disregard would be charged with a Class A misdemeanor.

But one legislator pointed out something interesting.

Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, noticed that the bill would make it a Class C felony intentionally to injure or kill a service dog. He also pointed out that criminally negligent homicide for a human being is only a Class A misdemeanor — unless the death or injury is caused by a motor vehicle, in which case it’s a Class C felony as well.

A Class C felony carries penalties of up to 10 years in prison and up to $15,000 in fines. The minimum becomes 10 years if a firearm or deadly weapon use is attempted.

A Class A misdemeanor carries a penalty of no more than one year in prison and no more than $6,000 in fines.

“I don’t equate the two,” Jones said. “I think the law has to be consistent.”

Jones said he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s anti-animal. He said he loves his own pets.

“The value of human life has to have some priority,” Jones said.

However, Jones was the only one who voted against keeping the language as it was.

– posted by Kala Kachmar and Brian Lyman

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