Historically speaking, legislative sessions in Alabama during an election year feature debate and passage of bills that are non-controversial in nature. Incumbents of both parties are reticent about taking up legislation that might have a backlash with the voters back home.
As a result, innocuous local bills and a few bills that clarify legislative intent of previously-passed measures are offered. Call the upcoming session convening Jan. 15 “vanilla” or “boring,” but call it a plan to protect incumbents who are loyal to the leadership.
In 2014, don’t expect any bold bills to be passed because party primaries will be conducted June 3. Incumbents don’t want to vote on any bill that causes heartburn to constituents so close to an election. Speaker Mike Hubbard and Senate President Pro-Tempore Del Marsh are openly committed to protecting fellow Republican lawmakers who have toed the line on their agenda.
That’s why the Alabama 2014 Political Action Committee was established — to raise and spend money on behalf of loyal legislators. Steering the PAC wagon is Sheriff Bob Riley who never accepted the role of riding off into the sunset on his white horse after leaving the Governor’s office. The war chest amassed by the former governor and his deputies in Republican leadership sadly frightens good people from attempting to seek seats in the legislature.
There is nothing unusual or wrong about that, but it presents challengers with an uphill climb to get elected. It’s egregious enough that incumbent legislators draw new district lines every 10 years to ensure their reelection.
But throw in a strange, new twist which cropped up in the last few weeks that changed the actual process to become a candidate for office. The leadership in both parties moved the qualifying deadline up to February under the guise of Justice Department pressure to ensure that military ballots are mailed and received in a timely manner. The argument is misleading because only a handful of counties didn’t have the competence to get military ballots processed in past elections.
The real remedy for that problem is not speeding up a qualifying deadline; rather it is riding herd on absentee election managers to make sure they comply with the law. Now, the short window for declaring one’s candidacy has narrowed so that incumbents face less of a threat that a potential challenger has time to qualify.
One outside factor that makes this upcoming session different from all the rest is the state grand jury convened months ago in Montgomery that was subsequently moved to Lee County. The grand jury was impaneled to collect evidence of alleged wrongdoing by Speaker Hubbard during his tenure as State GOP Chair (2007-2011) and subsequently as Speaker of the House (2010—present).
Also rumored to be under investigation are some former staff members who worked for Hubbard at the state Republican Party and some current lobbyists whose strong-arm tactics during the last few sessions raised ethical concerns. The pre-session atmosphere in Montgomery is different than in the past because of the jitters stemming from the grand jury investigation.
Several incumbents have been subpoenaed to appear in Lee County during the last few months. Jay Love and Jim Barton, both considered friends of the Speaker, resigned from their posts as did Barry Mask. Resigning from an elected leadership in mid-term, other than reasons of personal or family illness, is wrong and raises numerous red flags. That’s a story for another day. For now, suffice it to say some in the Republican leadership who yelled from the mountaintops about a new day in Alabama only changed the lead dogs, not the scenery.