Alabama Legislature

Spending Oversight Bill Clears Legislature, But Not in Time to Avoid Possible Veto

(Source: Abby Driggers, Alabama Daily News)

MONTGOMERY — Last week, as debate in the House of Representative raged into the night on the issue of gambling, lawmakers quietly gave final approval to a bill seeking more legislative oversight of government agencies’ spending, including that of the executive branch. But it didn’t pass in time to avoid a possible veto by the governor.

As originally written and passed by the House earlier in the session, Rep. Mike Jones’ House Bill 392 would have required any state agency or department planning to spend more than $10 million or 5% of their annual appropriation from the General Fund, whichever is less, to first be approved by a new oversight committee. That bill had nearly 40 GOP co-sponsors, including Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia. McCutcheon previously said the bill would give the Legislature more oversight of spending, such as the prison leases Ivey signed early this year.

However, the bill’s reach was scaled back considerably in the Senate. Instead of a new legislative panel, the Senate version gave oversight to the existing Legislative Contract Review Committee. It also removed the Legislature’s ability to delay contracts until the next legislative session.

Currently, the contract review committee can review and delay for 45 days service contracts entered into by state agencies.

“Instead of creating a second committee, it folded it into the current contract committee,” Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, said on the Senate floor Thursday. He handled the bill in that chamber.

“The primary purpose is to have legislative input through the process, and that core function of the bill is intact,” Chambliss told Alabama Daily News this week. “In the future, anything that comes along, we’ll have that legislative input along the way.”

The governor’s office has opposed the bill vigorously throughout the legislative process and had help from Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, who involved himself in negotiations.

Ainsworth had been a frequent critic of Ivey’s public health policies throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, so his working alongside the governor’s office to help scale the bill back was notable in the State House.

“When executive agreements involving millions of taxpayer dollars are negotiated, it is important for the Legislature to have a strong measure of oversight and involvement,” Ainsworth told Alabama Daily News. “Transparency is another essential need.  House Bill 392 as passed provides full accountability without violating the separation of powers, and it protects the interests of the taxpayers we seek to serve.”

The bill got final approval late Thursday night when the House met until midnight, but not in time to be transmitted to the governor’s office that day. That means it won’t reach her desk until Monday, the Legislature’s final day of the session, and lawmakers will have no recourse if Ivey vetoes it.

Ivey’s office did not comment this week about its position on the bill or its future.

Jones’ bill was one of several this session to put more legislative eyes on the executive branch. Sen. Greg Albritton proposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit Alabama governors from entering into contracts larger than $5 million without the Legislature’s approval. It died without a Senate vote.

“I think the message is we want to continue with legislative oversight,” Albritton said about Jones’ bill.

The bill said the committee can review money appropriated from the General Fund, but not other sources. The bill’s review process would not apply to the Alabama Department of Transportation.

Jones could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, still pending in the House is Senate Bill 334 from Sen. Tom Whatley to give the Legislature say in the extension of health orders such as those issued by the governor and state health officer in response to COVID-19.

Asked if his bill may get a vote on the final day of session, Whatley, R-Auburn, said that was a question for Jones, the House Rules Committee leader, who sets the daily agenda of bills.

Whatley noted that the Senate gave Jones a vote on his bill.