Friday, February 29, 2008

Rules are mere suggestions on Goat Hill

(Originally published 2/29/08)

The chair of a standing committee shall take a recorded vote on any motion if requested by a committee member and sustained by one additional committee member.

– Rule 75 of the Alabama House of Representatives

Presiding over the House of Representatives’ Education Policy Committee Wednesday, Rep. Terry Spicer (D-Elba) gaveled through a measure by Rep. Tammy Irons (D-Florence) that would give legislators oversight over state school board rules for two-year colleges.

Irons, an attorney, insists that her bill simply brings the State Board of Education into compliance with existing statutes and case law.

“I believe totally in openness and accountability … I have no patience for anyone not following the law,” she said.

Opponents say the SBA is exempt from those statutes and fear putting legislators in charge of overseeing a system that has been disgraced by two years’ worth of revelations including financial mismanagement, double-dipping, rampant cronyism, obstruction of justice, bribery, conspiracy and witness tampering. This newspaper sided with them in an editorial last week.

Wednesday’s hearing was bound to be contentious. But when Spicer ordered a voice vote on the measure and ignored repeated, obvious calls by Republican members for a recorded vote, all you-know-what broke loose.

I talked with Spicer on Thursday. He said that members “who were for the bill who didn’t want to be on the record” approached him before the meeting and asked him not to take a roll call vote. Spicer said he was simply looking out for them.

But those seeking protection, he said, were Republican members of the committee facing pressure from their party leadership.

“I find that very, very hard to believe,” House Minority Leader Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) said in response, noting that the GOP caucus voted unanimously two weeks ago to oppose Irons’ bill.

“I went to the speaker and asked, ‘Is there any need for our members to go to committees anymore?’” Hubbard said.

Hubbard said Spicer, a member of the 30-member Legislative Council that oversees rulemaking for state agencies and an assistant to the president at Enterprise-Ozark Community College, was effectively “ramming a bill through that would give oversight of his job to himself.”

I asked Irons whether she had lobbied members of the committee before the meeting; she said she had not. But she was “watching very closely” as the voice vote was taken, she said: “I know we had the votes.”

I asked Irons whether she also saw Republican members waving their arms around and calling for a recorded vote.

“I sure did, and I also saw the votes were there,” she said.

What does it mean, I asked her, that a bill being pushed in the interest of openness and accountability was gaveled through its only committee stop in violation of House rules and, lacking a recorded vote, without the same transparency she wants to create in the two-year system?

She directed questions about “committee procedure” to Spicer.

Tammy Irons seems like a nice enough person. But I worked as a legislative aide, and I never heard of any member taking a bill – especially a controversial bill – to a committee without having a feel for how it’s going to be received. At the very least, you need to lobby the chairman to hear the bill. You talk to committee members. You try to ferret out any objections or problems to your bill and cut them off at the pass. If there is opposition from lobbyists, you try to work it out with them before the bill is heard so that the wheels will be greased when you get heard in committee. You don’t like surprises, because in committee speak, “TP” – or “temporarily postponed” – equals “R.I.P.”

You have to lobby your bill … unless, of course, someone else is doing it for you.

What happened Wednesday is, unfortunately, no surprise to Alabamians. But it is disturbing that an institution that has so much trouble following its own rules would have the temerity to sit in judgment of rules made by anyone else.

On the blog this weekend, more on this issue and your Super Tuesday II preview.

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