The Alabama Legislature ended its 2009 session last week. After three months of work, the best that can be said is that the Legislature met its constitutional obligation to pass the state budgets. However, many more bills died on the floor and in committee. Some never came up for a vote. Here is a breakdown of some of the more significant bills that didn’t make it through the 2009 session.
Smoking Ban: A bill that would ban smoking in many places in Alabama was once again submitted by Sen. Vivian Figures (D-Mobile), and passed out of the Senate Education Committee with a vote of eight yays and two nays. Then Sen. Figures decided to pull the legislation after the Senate amended it into obscurity. Senators passed amendments that would exclude bars, restaurants, factories, dog tracks and bingo parlors from the ban—basically all the places a supporter of a smoking ban would want to go smoke-free. We’ll probably see this one again next session.
Ethics Reform: One might think that ethics reform would be a priority for the legislature, given the ridiculous number of legislators convicted of or suspected of public corruption. Alas, it was not. Gov. Riley pushed a bill that would give the Alabama Ethics Commission subpoena power (allowing it to actually investigate claims of corruption) and limit gifts from lobbyists. The bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee, but never made it to the floor. House Speaker Seth Hammett (D-Andalusia) said that if the bill had been brought up, it would have been filibustered, or, had it passed, died in the Senate. Just like in past sessions, ethics reform wasn’t even given a chance.
Texting While Driving Ban: Rep. Jim McClendon (R-Springville) submitted a bill to the House this session that would ban driving-while-texting. McClendon says texting can distract a driver, and that his bill might make our roads safer. The House passed McClendon’s bill, but it was delayed to death in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Myron Penn (D-Union Springs) said he wouldn’t want to stop a parent from getting an urgent message from a sick child, or something. It’s also illegal to speed on our highways, but if you have a good reason most cops will use some discretion.
Hate Crimes Expansion: A bill that would expand existing hate crimes legislation in Alabama to include crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation died on the floor of the Senate this year. The bill, which was proposed by Rep. Alvin Holmes (D-Montgomery), passed out of the House in a close 46-41 vote, and moved on to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which approved the bill. Even after that surprising bit of progress, Holmes’ bill never made it to a vote on the Senate floor.
PACT Help: Alabama’s Prepaid Affordable College Tuition has lost half its value in two years due to the collapse of the stock market (into which the program had invested about 70% of its assets). In March, PACT asked the legislature to help the organization, which holds contracts for 48,000 families, some of which guaranteed the program would pay college tuition for future students. Lt Gov. Jim Folsom promised that the legislature would save PACT, but a bill that would do that was never voted upon in the Senate. Another bill, which would have passed control of the program to the Retirement System of Alabama, also died in the Senate.
PAC-to-PAC ban: Alabama law allows for political money laundering through political action committees, called PACs. Campaign finance transfers from one PAC to another make donations untraceable and render existing campaign finance restrictions meaningless. Rep. Jeff McLaughlin (D-Guntersville) again introduced a bill that would have banned PAC-to-PAC transfers. The House passed the bill, but it died in the Senate. Blame for killing the bill should start with Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham. Smitherman let the bill languish “in the basket” for nearly two months before assigning it to a Senate committee. Typically bills are assigned to committee within hours, or on the outside, days. This is the ninth year in a row that the PAC-to-PAC ban has died in the Senate.
Grocery tax repeal: A bill that would have removed state sales taxes from groceries died on the House floor — four times. Rep. John Knight championed the legislation, but a coalition of Republicans and some Democrats blocked it. If enacted, the bill would have phased out sales taxes on groceries over three years. The bill would have replaced those funds by removing the federal income tax deduction on state returns. Advocates for the poor have criticized the state for relying on sales tax, a regressive tax which disproportionately burdens the poor. Republicans decried the bill as a tax hike, even though it would have been revenue neutral. At the conclusion of the session, Knight received the Legislature’s Shroud Award, a decoration for the “deadest bill” of the session. Somehow, this is supposed to be funny.
Alabama Constitution Reform: Rep. Ken Guin (D-Carbon Hill) introduced a bill this session that would have let Alabamians vote on a constitutional convention, up or down. Rep. James Buskey, D-Mobile, tried to carry the bill over, effectively killing it. A majority of the voting Alabama House members supported Buskey’s motion. More than 20 legislators didn’t even vote. To no one’s surprise, constitution reform again died in Montgomery.
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