Elections have consequences, and in Alabama the consequences have come quickly and decisively.
On November 2, Republicans captured the Alabama legislature for the first time in 136 years and within days the new members were sworn in. Then Republican governor Bob Riley called a special session of the legislature and, just before Christmas, it passed and the governor signed a sweeping ethics law that’s one of the strongest in the nation.
Absent the Republican majorities, “it would never have happened,” says Gary Palmer, who heads the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank. Alabama has been plagued for years with high-profile scandals, including the indictment of four state senators (two Democrats, one Republican, one independent) in October in an alleged vote-buying conspiracy and the conviction of former Democratic governor Don Siegelman of corruption in 2006.
Until now, the state’s ethics laws “were among the worst in the nation,” the new speaker of the Alabama House, Mike Hubbard, wrote in the Montgomery Advertiser. And while serious reform was frequently discussed in the legislature, nothing much came of it. In 2006, Democrats promised to make it a top priority, but nothing came of that either.
But voters last month “signaled a demand to change the way Montgomery (the state capital) does business,” Hubbard said, “and a desire to end the political scandals and embarrassing headlines…We heard their message.”
As part of the Republican surge across the South, Republicans took control of the Alabama House, 62-43, and the Senate, 22-12 with one independent. The landslide, along with four Democratic Party switchers, gave Republicans super-majorities in both chambers and left Democrats with no ability to block Republican legislation.
Still, Democrats made a vigorous effort to block the measure – one of seven in the new law – that will halt the practice of automatic payroll deductions for public employee organizations involved in politics. Without the automatic deduction, groups like the Alabama Education Association AEA), the teachers’ lobby, are sure to find it more difficult to raise dues money.
Democrats insisted the measure was designed to weaken the AEA, a powerful ally of the Democratic Party. And there’s little doubt Republicans had the AEA in mind. It is headed by the state’s most influential Democrat, Paul Hubbert.
Hubbert was apoplectic in a message to AEA members. The bill will “muzzle teachers and school employees regarding any issue facing public schools,” he said. AEA “will fight to restore every educators’ right to be a full citizen of the state of Alabama.”
Besides eliminating the automatic deduction, the new law bars “double-dipping” (holding two state jobs) by public employees. It also halts the transferring of funds between political action committees, a practice used to mask the original donor of the funds. Gambling interests were thought to have exploited these transfers.
The bill bans a similar practice used to mask earmarks by hiding their funding in budgets with the tacit understanding the money will be used for specific projects. And it gives the state ethics commission subpoena power for the first time.
The weakest part of the bill deals with lobbyists. Their spending on behalf of legislators is limited to $250 a year, instead of the current $250 a day. But this doesn’t cover all spending, and lobbyists aren’t required to disclose their expenditures.
The turnaround in Alabama is emblematic of the Republican rise in the South. Alabama is now one of eight Southern states with Republican-controlled legislatures (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas). All of those states except North Carolina have Republican governors.