Monday, September 17, 2007

Puzzled why Hubbert opposed Byrne's proposals

(Published 8/4/07)

Alabama two-year college system Chancellor Bradley Byrne is getting serious.

Byrne announced this week a series of proposals that would, according to the account by Birmingham News reporter Charles J. Dean:

  • End all personal services contracts lawmakers have with schools;
  • Establish a Division of Internal Audit in the Alabama College System that would oversee financial operations at all schools and report findings directly to the chancellor and the board;
  • Give the chancellor the power to reverse any appointment or assignment of personnel at each college when determined to be contrary to state law or board policy; and
  • Prohibit legislators after the 2010 elections from holding jobs at two-year colleges.
The most controversial of Byrne’s proposals is the provision overhauling the leave rules within the system. It would limit all two-year college employees, including lawmakers, to 10 days of unpaid leave a year. According to the News, lawmakers also would not be allowed to use vacation time or accumulated leave to work in the Legislature, meaning they could serve on only 10 of the 40 or more meeting days in a typical legislative session.

On Wednesday, Alabama Education Association bigwig and state Democratic Party vice chairman Paul Hubbert said Byrne’s proposals are politically motivated, and he pledged to lobby state school board members against their enactment; failing success in that venue, he vowed to sue to block the proposals.

Here’s what I don’t get: Why would Hubbert come out so strongly against something that’s purely hypothetical at this point?

Byrne will meet Monday to give state school board members more information on the proposals and answer their questions.

Given the concern expressed by at least one member of the board about the 10-day rule, it’s likely that Byrne will have to somehow soften that provision to gain passage of the other, arguably more critical parts of his reform package.

It reminded me of a time when I worked in the Florida Legislature. My state representative proposed legislation that would simply require all witnesses before legislative committees to be sworn in before offering testimony on bills. Nine times out of 10, "witnesses," of course, means "lobbyists," because "witnessing" is what they’re paid to do.

Anyway, up until another legislator proposed complete financial disclosure for lobbyists a couple of years later, the "sworn testimony" bill, as it came to be called, earned a reputation among lobbyists as the most egregious legislation against their profession in recent memory. They hated it. The state lobbying organization didn't support it.

We were left wondering why they would react so negatively to the bill. Who knew that asking people to promise to tell the truth would be so onerous? If they were telling the truth anyway in committee, why would they mind taking an oath?

The conclusion was as disturbing as it was obvious. And so it is with Hubbert. Why not make a counter-proposal for the flex time during discussions with the state school board next week?

Could it be because any change to current flex-time rules would be unacceptable? Could it be because Hubbert is looking for any excuse to kill the reform package? Perhaps Hubbert is right: perhaps this fight is politically motivated. After all, according to the News, "most state lawmakers who stand to be affected by two-year Chancellor Bradley Byrne’s proposals to end so-called double dipping are Democrats."

The need for comprehensive reform in Alabama’s two-year college system is undeniable, and undeniably overdue. Here’s hoping that Byrne will be able to muscle some real accountability measures into place before Alabama’s taxpayers are taken to the cleaners - again.

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