Ethics Law, School Safety, Monuments: Issues Remain As Legislators Try To Hurry Home in Election Year

Members of the Alabama House of Representatives Meet in the Statehouse. (Source: Alabama Legislature)

Alabama legislators have been hoping to end the legislative session by the end of March this year so they can hit the campaign trail, but if they’re going to meet that deadline, they have a lot of work to do in a short amount of time.

It’s not just the state budgets, which traditionally are not passed until the waning days of the session. Legislators have yet to reach agreement on several of the issues they said were important going into the session. Among them were issues related to the state’s ethics laws, guns in schools and management of special elections.

Legislators return to work Tuesday. Technically, they could meet until April 24, but if they want to meet their own deadline and turn their attention to re-election, they’d have about two weeks to wrap up their legislative work.


Ethics Law Rewrite

Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, introduced a broad bill last month that would have substantially rewritten the ethics law. But since then Marsh has agreed to hold his proposal over for a year while a commission studies the ethics law and makes recommendations for changes.

Sen. Del Marsh

The resolution setting up that commission, SJR11, introduced by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, has passed the Senate and is pending in the House. It states that the ethics law was passed more than 40 years ago and has been amended several times since then, leaving a law under which “reasonable individuals can sometimes disagree on what is permitted and what is not.”

If the resolution were approved, a commission made up of legislators, state officials, lawyers and other appointees would be tasked to “study and make recommendations for reforming and clarifying the Code of Ethics.” The commission would give its report to the Legislature at the beginning of next year’s session.

Marsh’s proposal, SB343, would have substantially rewritten the ethics law, including allowing legislators to create legal defense funds for themselves and requiring public officials to give more detail about their sources of income on financial disclosure statements they file each year.

The executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, Tom Albritton, said at the time that sections of the bill did clarify language in the law and strengthened it in sections, but he said the bill also included a lot of changes that he did not like. He favored the plan for a study commission, on which he would serve.

One ethics-related bill that is moving this session would exempt “economic development professionals” from regulations the ethics law puts on lobbyists.

HB317, proposed by Rep. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton, has been passed by the House and is pending in a Senate committee.

Albritton has expressed concerns about the bill, saying people talking to government officials about economic development would not have to follow the same rules as people talking to officials, or lobbying, for other issues. He also has said that “economic development” is a broad term, and the exemption might be used in ways the authors had not intended.

The state’s commerce director told The Associated Press that his office asked for the legislation because of confusion about whether developers have to register as lobbyists.

Johnson said he sponsored the bill because he feared Alabama’s requirements for lobbyist registration could dampen interest in the state for economic development projects.

Guns in Schools

Legislators sponsored several bills to crack down on the purchase of guns in the wake of the recent school shooting in Florida. Those bills were put on the back burner as Gov. Kay Ivey this past week announced formation of a council to study school safety and recommend new laws or policies.

But after a shooting at Huffman High School in Birmingham, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, met with legislators who had sponsored bills to address guns in schools and school safety issues. He and Marsh told the Montgomery Advertiser they favored moving forward with a comprehensive plan to address school safety and doubted that would happen before the end of the session.

Among the more controversial of those bills is HB435, sponsored by Rep. Will Ainsworth, R-Guntersville. The bill, which would allow teachers to get firearm training and carry guns into schools, is pending action in committee.

Payday Lending

Some legislators have been trying for several years to change laws related to the payday lending industry. They’ve had limited success.

One bill has been advancing in the Legislature this year. The Senate has passed SB138, which would require payday lenders to give customers 30 days to repay a loan.

The bill, by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, has been referred to a House committee. Orr said the change would cut the annual percentage rate to 220 percent. Now, the effective rate can be as high as 450 percent.

State Board of Education Members

A bill to add four nonvoting members to the state Board of Education is being considered by a House committee.

The board has eight elected members, and the governor serves as an ex officio member. HB70, sponsored by Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, would broaden that membership. The bill would add two teachers – the current teacher of the year and the most recent past teacher of the year – and two students – one each elected by Alabama Boys State and Alabama Girls State – to the board.

A more controversial section of the bill could change the relationship between the board and the state superintendent of education. It would require the superintendent to hire an administrative director to act as a liaison between the superintendent and the board.

The bill states specifically that members of the state Board of Education are held to the same standards as local school board members in terms of neglect of duty, breach of duty and misconduct.

If there were complaints against board members, the superintendent would be authorized to investigate and could recommend the governor impose sanctions that include a formal censure or reprimand and loss of eligibility to run for another term.

 Memorial Preservation Act

Two bills aimed at repealing all or sections of the state’s Memorial Preservation Act were introduced this year but so far have not gotten much attention. The act prohibits removal of monuments and memorials older than 40 years. Most of the discussion about the act deal with its protection of Confederate monuments and symbols.

Birmingham Mayor William Bell had the Confederate monument in Linn Park covered after protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned violent.

It was because of that law that former Birmingham Mayor William Bell had a Confederate monument in Linn Park covered in plywood, after the City Council had been debating having it removed.

HB16, sponsored by Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, would repeal the state’s Memorial Preservation Act in full. The bill has been introduced but has not gotten a vote in committee.

SB11 would exempt schools from the law and repeal sections of the law that deal with the renaming of buildings. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, also is pending in committee.


Special Elections

In the wake of last year’s heated U.S. Senate race, a bill has been introduced to specify that the governor would appoint a person to serve until the next general election. HB17, sponsored by Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, has been passed by the House and is pending in the Senate.

One of Alabama’s U.S. Senate seats was left vacant last year after Jeff Sessions resigned to accept President Trump’s appointment as U.S. attorney general. Then-Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Luther Strange to fill the seat temporarily. He said Alabama law was vague on the subject of special elections, which cost the state about $500,000. Bentley decided not to call a special election but to put the race on the 2018 general election ballot.

Bentley was criticized for that decision, and after he resigned, Gov. Kay Ivey called a special election. The move ultimately led to Democrat Doug Jones being elected to fill out Sessions’ term, which ends in 2020.

Since then, Ivey has been criticized for calling a special election. HB17 makes a clearer statement on how those vacancies should be filled.

Another bill making its way through the Legislature would address the filling of state legislative seats. SB15, sponsored by Sen. Rusty Glover, R-Semmes, states that if a state House or Senate seat is vacated after Oct. 1 in the third year of the term, the seat would be left vacant until a candidate is elected the following year.

Glover has said the bill would reduce the state’s costs for holding special elections. Several special elections have been needed this year to fill vacant legislative seats. Opponents, however, have pointed out that the rule could leave a district without representation for a year.

SB15 is a proposed constitutional amendment and would go to a vote of the people if passed in the Legislature. It has been passed in the House and is pending action in the Senate.