Published: Wednesday, December 08, 2010, 5:30 AM ??? Updated: Wednesday, December 08, 2010, 5:35 AM
MONTGOMERY -- Alabama lawmakers convene in Montgomery today to begin a special session on ethics reform called by outgoing Gov. Bob Riley.
Republican leaders, with the GOP newly in control of the House of Representatives and Senate, said they have the votes to pass the seven bills on Riley's agenda.
But some Democrats said one of Riley's proposals -- to prohibit political action committee contributions from being deducted from teachers' and state employees' paychecks -- is as much about politics as reform.
Riley said the special session that begins at 4 p.m. is an opportunity to put an end to a tarnished political system that has brought Alabama shame through scandals and indictments.
"This special session will make history," Riley said Tuesday. "It will be the first real debate of reforms to change a corrupt political system and give Alabama the toughest ethics laws in the nation.
"I believe legislators are taking this moment seriously because they understand the people are watching and are expecting them to live up to their promises."
Riley will address lawmakers at 6 p.m.
Riley's proposals include limiting what a lobbyist can spend on a public official to $25 per occasion and $100 total in a year. The limit would put an end to extravagant dinners or free Iron Bowl tickets for legislators. Riley's other proposals include giving subpoena power to the Alabama Ethics Commission, banning transfers between political action committees, and banning legislators from holding another government job.
Sen. Del Marsh, who is expected to be elected president pro tempore of the new Republican-majority Senate, says there are enough votes to pass all seven bills in Riley's agenda.
"I think we will pass a package that is reflective of what the governor is trying to get accomplished," Marsh said.
Passing the bills will move Alabama "light years" ahead on ethics, he said. Democrats are expected to propose their own package of bills this afternoon.
"We're in a total support of passing ethics bills. We're in total support of an ethics special session," House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said.
Both Democrats and Republicans said one of the biggest fights of the session will be a proposal from Riley to prohibit political action committee contributions from being deducted from teachers' and state employees' paychecks. The proposal would prohibit groups like the Alabama Education Association from collecting money by payroll deduction.
Ford said that proposal is about trying to cripple a major donor to Democrats' campaigns.
"They are trying to cut off the money that is usually funded toward Democratic candidates to run for election," Ford said. "That would be like us trying to cut off money coming from BCA (the Business Council of Alabama) if we had a way to do it."
Riley communications director Jeff Emerson said the bill is not political. Emerson said it is illegal and improper to use government resources for political purposes.
"It would be akin to allowing state vehicles to be driven to political rallies," Emerson said.
Marsh said the payroll deduction bill will also be a fight, but predicted the Senate will approve it. "I like the way the votes stack up," he said.
Republican leaders have said they want to be finished in five days, but several lawmakers said it could take longer, given the complexity of the seven proposed laws on ethics and campaign finance that are scheduled for debate.
"My concern is our ability to try to pass all these complex bills within five days," said Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham. "I think we're going to need additional time during this session. It may take longer than five days to complete. I just don't know the exact number."
Lawmakers could pass bills into law in a special session in as few as five straight meeting days or as many as 12 meeting days scheduled over 30 calendar days. A special session could cost anywhere from about $100,000 to about $400,000, depending on its length.
Rep. Richard Lindsey, D-Centre, said he thinks the special session will be an unnecessary cost that a cash-strapped state cannot afford. He said the bills could have waited until the Legislature's 15-week-long regular session starts March 1. "Special sessions are designed for emergencies. This is not an emergency," Lindsey said.
But Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, who used to be Riley's policy director, said bills similar to the ones now up for review have been proposed and sometimes debated in the Legislature for years.
"These reforms have been studied thoroughly. They've been presented before legislative committees," Taylor said. "There is no rush here at all." Taylor said bills could be adjusted up until they're filed for legislative review later today, and could be further fine-tuned in review committees after lawmakers get input from the public at a hearing scheduled to start at 6 p.m. today at the Capitol.
"I don't see any reason why we can't get this done in five days, especially since both parties have campaigned on most of these reforms every four years," Taylor said.
Attorneys Joe Espy of Montgomery and Matt McDonald of Mobile briefed lawmakers at a legislative orientation session in Tuscaloosa Tuesday and said the seven bills up for review in the special session did have, in their view, some ambiguities and possible problems.
Among them, McDonald said:
- Some bills contain different definitions of lobbying. Taylor said that those definitions would be adjusted to be identical.
- The proposed ban on transfers of money between political action committees would, as written, prohibit a politician from paying his or her qualifying fee to the Democratic or Republican Party from his or her campaign fund.
- Proposed caps on the value of legislators' gifts from lobbyists could make it difficult, and perhaps a record-keeping nightmare, for an association to host a Legislature-wide reception attended by hospital administrators or other legislators' constituents from across Alabama.
Also contributing to this article: David White -- The Birmingham News. Join the conversation by clicking to comment or e-mail Chandler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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