The Senate passed all three bills considered today and recessed by noon. HB10, banning “pass through pork” had no amendments. HB11, providing for ethics training had one floor amendment; my first amendment which I lobbied very hard on both sides of the isle to gain support for…okay, it was a simple, common sense amendment (described in the post below) but nonetheless a good amendment from a local public official perspective and I appreciate the unanimous support from my colleagues. HB 9 bans PAC to PAC transfers and had a couple of amendments that will likely go to conference committee for final action. I don’t think HB11 will go to conference committee as the amendment is “friendly”. A good term for an amendment!
The day has grown long as the House debates the four bills originating in the Senate. They started this morning on SB2 and have continued to debate this bill throughout the day. SB2 concerns the practice of allowing payroll deduction for political dues for employees of the state. I’ve been on the House floor off and on throughout the day, listening to the debate and comparing thoughts with Representatives from the North Alabama Delegation. The predominant concern of the opposition continues to be centered on perceived political aspects of the bill. The democrats in the House are posturing a similar argument heard in the Senate; the bill is not an ethics issue and therefore should not be considered in the Special Session. I maintain that the wasteful spending of tax payer dollars (and again, I’m a taxpayer…) is gravely unethical and therefore this is clearly an ethics issue. I’ve also heard from the democrat side that SB2 limits a group’s voice in the political process. I disagree as SB2 does not impede anyone from contributing to any organization, paying dues or otherwise. I would not support any legislation that limits someone’s voice in the political process; not only would that be un-Constitutional it is also unconscionable! I maintain that several means are available for employees to make those contributions including bank draft, debit card deduction or, simply writing a check.
As the basis of my reasoning I submit the following personal example: My wife works for a nationwide financial firm and belongs to a nationwide organization of executives with local chapters across the country. She pays dues to the organization through a personal check. She does not have the option of paying her dues via payroll deduction. Why? Because there is no benefit to the firm she works for to allow the process of payroll deduction. By not allowing payroll deduction, is the firm restricting her rights? Is the firm squelching her voice? No. There is simply no benefit to the firm to provide this option to her. Another factor, the process of allowing payroll deduction will cost the firm something but returns no value. On the other hand, the firm allows payroll deduction for healthcare and insurance. Why? Because these are benefits to the employee and thereby benefit the firm. My vote in support of SB2 was not from a political position but rather from a best use of tax payer dollars position. In my example above, the firm is the state of Alabama. Continuing to collect dues for political purposes via state payroll deduction does not benefit the state nor does it benefit the tax payers at large.
The Senate and House convened on Monday for what is suppose to be the final two days of the Special Session. Monday was relatively uneventful in the Senate as we took up the three bills originating in the House. This was a committee meeting, just like last week where we met as a “committee of the whole” – in other words, every Senate member was on the committee. Of note, I will offer my first amendment on one of those bills today…more on that later. All three bills were passed out of committee and will be considered for final passage when we convene today at 10:00.
The House took up the Senate bills in committee on Monday (theirs was a smaller committee, not comprised of all 105 members!). The House committee passed three of the four bills forwarded by the Senate but offered a substitute on SB14 – the Ethics Reform Bill. At this point I’ll just say there was significant collaboration and some compromise by all parties, mostly behind the scenes over the weekend and throughout Monday’s meetings. I remind myself, this is a process and so much as there is a process by which legislation must follow to be law, there is also a chess game of sorts by which opposing sides – seeking similar change – leverage proposed legislation during the process to reach an ultimate goal. This is all very interesting and certainly not lost on this freshman Senator.
The two bills to watch today are SB2 and SB14 in the House. I plan to spend some time in the House with members of the delegation to watch and listen to the debate.
Back to my amendment to HB11 – This bill provides for ethics training, which everyone needs but more so than ever with the ethics reform we are passing (hopefully) in the Special Session. The amendment provides for online training of local public officials (mayors, councilmen and county commissioners) to complete ethics training. The ethics training is broken down by Legislators, Executive Branch, Lobbyist, etc. Getting all of these people together in a central location is easy enough as most are or will be in Montgomery. However, getting local public officials together, even regionally, will be a challenge and falls into the “unfunded mandate” category. Another aspect, having been a city councilmen; there is a constant struggle between the demands of your “day job” and council duties. The amendment only applies to local public officials and is not intended to lessen the quality or quantity of the ethics training developed for local publ.
Another aspect of this amendment is that I’m gaining valuable firsthand knowledge of legislative process. Things moved quickly in committee and I was unable to introduce the amendment before HB11 was passed out of committee so I’ll introduce it when we consider the bill for passage on the floor today.
Looking forward to a spirited day in session; I’ll update as the day proceeds.
Day two of the Special Session was devoted to the Ethics Committee meeting. All 35 members of the Senate participated in the committee. I’m told this was a first and I commend President Pro Tem Senator Del Marsh for establishing the committee as such - it certainly provided for a great deal of transparency as committees are normally comprised of anywhere from 8 – 15 Senate members. While at times it was somewhat cumbersome to have a committee of 35 members it was certainly worth the effort.
After a long day in and out of committee meetings, all four bills were eventually passed out of committee with minimal amendments and are being taken up for a vote on the Senate floor today.
Day three of the Special Session was devoted to deliberating the bills for final passage out of the Senate, sending them to the House for consideration. Day three proved very interesting…the Democrats immediately began filibustering the first bill introduced by the Republicans. After almost three hours of listening to the other side provide very little in substance to the bill introduced, the Republicans voted cloture, forcing a vote on the first bill, SB2. All four bills were eventually passed through the Senate and we adjourned until Monday when we will take up the three bills that passed the House earlier today.
I provide my thoughts on the four bills the Senate passed to the House below. One thing is certain – we are further down the road than ever before with Ethics Reform in Alabama. I will continue to fight the good fight and support sweeping ethics reform for our state.
SB2: Concerning the practice of allowing payroll deduction for political dues for employees of the state. I have met with, emailed, sent text messages and talked on the phone with numerous people across the state concerning this Bill. The predominant concerns of those I spoke with were centered on perceived political aspects of the Bill. I fail to see the connection – this is not a politically polarized issue. The democrats postured that the bill was not an ethics issue and therefore should not be considered in the Special Session. I believe the wasteful spending of tax payer dollars (and I’m a taxpayer…) is gravely unethical and therefore this is clearly an ethics issue. The democrat side further argued that SB2 limited their voice in the political process. I disagree as SB2 does not impede anyone from contributing to any organization, paying dues or otherwise. Several means are available for employees to make those contributions including bank draft, debit card deduction or, simply writing a check.
I support SB2 not from a political position but rather from a best use of tax payer dollars position – it is truly that simple. Continuing to collect dues for political purposes via state payroll deduction is an undue burden on the state that does not support the tax payers at large and is simply wrong.
I encourage any state employee that currently uses payroll deduction as a means to support an organization they believe in to continue to support those organizations through a bank draft, debit card deduction or, write a check.
SB3: Concerning prohibiting a legislator from being employed by any other branch or agency of state government, also known as “Double Dipping”. The democrat’s argument during the committee debate focused on getting two pay checks from the state rather than the more obvious issue – conflict of interest. As most readers know, I faced this dilemma a little over a year ago at the federal level with the Hatch Act for Federal Employees. Prior to running for the State Senate I was a federal employee working at NASA. The Hatch act forced me to make a clear decision – do I want to serve in the state legislature or do I want to continue as a government employee. While the decision was difficult it was a clear choice and rooted in avoiding a conflict of interest.
I support this bill as I believe that a legislator who also works for a government agency will be placed in a position where they must decide between sound legislation and the impact of that legislation on their job.
SB1: Concerning the makeup of the State Ethics Commission and granting the commission subpoena power. A significant amendment offered to this Bill requires that at least one member of the commission be a registered attorney in the state of Alabama. I support this bill as it gives the Ethics Commission subpoena power – something long overdue in Alabama...they now have a bite to go along with the bark. An amendment offered on this bill provided that a member of the commission must be a licensed attorney in Alabama. This Bill unanimously passed 35 - 0 in the Senate.
SB14: Relating to the Alabama Code of Ethics. A substitute bill was offered and I supported the substitute because it focused on simplicity over complexity, quality over quantity. The original bill was 42 pages long and after days of reading, debating and collaborating it still gave myself and many of my colleagues great pause due to its overall complexity. The substitute is 3 pages long and is a two step process. First, it provides that a lobbyist cannot provide to any public employee anything of value. Simple as that. Second, it requires that the Alabama Ethics Commission report to the Legislature “best practices” from other states that we will then model into a comprehensive ethics bill in the 2011 session. I, like several other Senators were concerned with the complexity of what was allowed and what was not allowed when we go home to our respective districts. As written it appeared to place county commissioners, city councils and mayors in a difficult position. I was not elected to fix problems in the city halls of Athens, Madison or Huntsville nor corruption in the Chambers of Commerce in Limestone and Madison Counties. Rather I was elected to fix problems in Montgomery and that is where I intend to focus my efforts. This Bill passed 35 - 0 in the Senate.
We adjourned from the Legislative Orientation in Tuscaloosa just before noon yesterday. The orientation was good and I was able to meet fellow legislators in a conference setting but the session ended up having little to do with orienting me to my new duties in Montgomery.
We convened for the Special Session in Montgomery at 4 PM where Senator Del Marsh was unanimously elected as the President Pro Tem. I'm told that a unanimous vote had not happened for at least 50 years.
We adjourned at 5:30 to met in the old house chamber in the state capital to hear Gov. Riley address the public prior to the public hearing. Gov. Riley hit some great points in a standing room only crowd. The public hearing lasted exactly 3 1/2 hours and we heard from exactly 50 members of the public ranging from professionals representing state-wide organizations to citizens representing themselves. I took notes on comments from everyone that spoke.
I commend my fellow legislators who stayed to the very end. I'm disheartened that not all stayed for the entire session. In my humble opinion - the last speaker's words carried the same weight as the first speaker's words. As a public servant, when the public is speaking at a public hearing on legislation that I am considering - there is no better place for me to be than at the public hearing.
Several people from North Alabama spoke last night, deep into the batting order and, while I didn't count heads, the North Alabama Delegation was well represented. That made me proud.
Every speaker at the hearing supported the proposed ethics reforms in some fashion (some wanted us to make them stronger, others wanted us to watch making them too complex) with exception to four who told us that the Bill eliminating the process by which dues are currently collected by the state for some organizations is unfair.
On a lighter note, while driving late last night from downtown Montgomery to my hotel on the east side of town I got to meet a Capitol Police Officer...he politely got me turned around as I was headed down a one-way street. Note to self - there are a lot of one-way streets here!
Also, the irony of the fact that I'm in Montgomery for a special session on ethics reform dealing with actions of lobbyist was not lost on me as I was invited to a reception honoring freshmen legislators hosted by several lobbyist groups.
Last thing - to CBS News, Channel 8 here in Montgomery; don't use stock footage of the old legislature when reporting on the new legislature...most of those guys are no longer here.
I've posted some links under News on the Home Page concerning items of value that I've returned to organizations. I truly appreciate the gesture of good will but have made it a point not to accept items of value as an elected official that are not similarly made available to the general public.
I feel it is important to lead by example, especially as we prepare to go into a special session focused on ethics reform.
I’ve made several trips to Montgomery since the election. I have an office with a desk and a chair…the basics, and I’m ready to go to work!
Today, Governor Riley called for a special session to address ethics reform. We’ll go into session on December the 8th for several days to address a hand full of ethics bills; details are still being worked out.
On Monday the 6th of December we will be in Tuscaloosa at the Alabama Law Institute for a 3 day legislative orientation. We’ll head to Montgomery after adjourning from the orientation and convene in Montgomery for the Special Session – first order of business; organization of the Senate.
Next week will be a busy week for sure; looks like I’ll be doing my Christmas shopping this weekend!