A Broken Legislature
The Huntsville Times
Thursday, May 01, 2008

The 2008 session points out the need for constitutional reform.

Until Tuesday, there was serious talk of the Alabama Legislature having to hold a special session to pass the state General Fund and education budgets.

Such a session may still be needed, but a controversial Senate vote has diminished somewhat the prospect of taxpayers having to pay for a separate session.

More importantly, what transpired Tuesday put a spotlight on a number of issues that, combined, lead to the inevitable conclusion that the Legislature is broken. What remains to be determined is whether anyone has the political will to fix it.

Here are the issues:

The House and Senate have two, and only two, tasks it must perform each session - pass the budgets. That's what the law says. So to hold a regular session, and then to be forced to come back in another session to fix the budgets, would be wasteful and shameful.

The Senate decision Tuesday finally, after weeks of filibustering, cleared the way for the upper chamber to act. But in the meantime, the lower chamber was heading off course in a complicated series of events that centered on last-minute efforts by supporters to get more money for higher education.

Austere budgets

That's of some concern here, where institutions like Alabama A&M and the University of Alabama in Huntsville are losing money under this year's austere budget.

So the possibilities of a budget deadlock remain.

The Senate's hang-up until Tuesday centered on disagreement with the chamber's rules and committee assignments that began on day one (and actually continued from last year's testy session). It's been exasperated by a filibuster by Sen. Myron Penn, D-Union Springs, to get approval for a bill to regulate bingo in Macon County.

The Macon County issue is glaring example of why the Legislature needs to get out of the local government business. Surely this is an issue that's up to Macon County only, not the entire state, to decide.

It's certainly not an issue that should be able to stall the budgets and to prevent debate and action on legislation that would institute insurance reforms and eliminate the state sales tax on groceries.

To get the Senate out of limbo, Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom had to avert his eyes and ignore the hands of senators who wanted a roll-call vote on the issue, which, under Senate rules, was their right. Instead, Folsom's acute hearing enabled him to decide that the senators had decided to set aside Penn's bill and move on. One senator claims Folsom's actions were not only improper but illegal.

Adrift from voters

While moving past Penn's filibuster may have been in the best interest of the state, does the end justify the means? And what about the other voice votes that have occurred in this session on issues like whether legislators can continue to double dip by serving in Montgomery and drawing checks from institutions of higher learning?

Doesn't this further erode public confidence that (a) convenience, rather than legality, rules the day and (b) legislators try their darnedest not to be recorded on controversial issues so they don't have to be accountable?

Put all this together and you have a body of lawmakers who seem more adrift from their constituents than anyone in Washington.

Only constitutional reform, by which the Legislature's powers are diminished, can turn this around.

And come 2010, voters may be thinking more seriously about finding representatives and senators who will do just that.

By David Prather, for the editorial board. E-mail: david.prather@htimes.com.

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