Alabama legislators, like all elected officeholders, are sent to represent their constituents in Montgomery on legislative matters. This means passing or defeating bills that are introduced and debated during each session. During any given session, over 1,000 bills are filed in the House and Senate.
While most of them never see the light of day, there are many that get a public hearing in committee and ultimately are brought for a full vote on the floor of each chamber. With each measure are amendments, motions to table and other parliamentary hurdles to overcome before bills pass.
In most other states, it would be a staff member who is given the daunting task of analyzing legislation for a specific senator or representative. In Alabama, it’s a lobbyist. The reason is because Alabama lawmakers are not given the tools they need to thoroughly do what’s expected of them from “the folks back home” — to read, analyze and understand bills well enough to make a reasoned decision on their merits or pitfalls.
In the House of Representatives, each member is relegated to a cubby hole, sharing a secretary with fellow members. Only the people in leadership like the speaker and president pro tempore are provided with secretaries and legislative assistants. In the Senate, the member is given a full-time secretary and sometimes an intern during session.
When a bill comes to a committee for debate, Alabama lawmakers have little time to study it and no staff member to explain it. The end result is that the lobbyists who represent the entity trying to pass or kill the bill are the go-to people for an explanation and analysis of what the bill does. In essence, a lobbyist in Alabama not only serves his or her client, they moonlight as unpaid legislative analysts.
So, when a lobbyist walks into a meeting with a senator or representative, he or she may pitch the office holder on why the piece of legislation is good for the folks back home or the state as a whole. But there’s also someone he or she represents that is set to make a monetary gain or avoid a loss from the implementation of that particular law.
Rarely is a bill well received by members on both sides of the aisle, and even more uncommon is a bill being labeled as non-partisan. Therefore, the lobbyists rely heavily on the relationship they have with members of the state legislature in order to quickly move the bill through the committee and onto the floor for final passage. The old saying of “It’s not what you know, but who you know” certainly rings true at the Alabama Statehouse.
In this state, there are exactly 300 lobbyists registered with the Ethics Commission. While that number is much lower than the number of lobbyists in Texas, which has over 1,000, senators and representatives in the Lone Star State have an office in the state capitol, at least one district office and a minimum of five staff members — one of whom is known as a policy analyst. In comparison, Texas has nearly one staffer per lobbyist; Alabama’s lobbyists outnumber staffers by almost three to one.
I’ve seen firsthand the burden placed on legislative assistants during each session. In the Senate, I was an intern for one of the staffers who was tasked with the responsibility of not only handling day-to-day office operations, but constituent affairs, legislative issues and running the weekly committee meeting. It’s more than accurate to say that the political staffers in the Alabama State House are over-worked and under-paid.
From bill drafting to amendment proposals, working with Legislative Reference Service and the Legislative Fiscal Office, to creating talking points and bill synopses, lobbyists in Alabama have a hand in everything except perhaps the final vote on the floor.
“You get what you pay for,” is why legislators, with little or no staff, are often in the dark on resolutions and bills. Lobbyists in Alabama wield much more power and influence as they fill the role of nonexistent staffers.
Alabama lawmakers, tasked with not only the overwhelming amount of work that goes into seeing a law come to fruition, but also being a statesman for his or her constituency, need to seriously address increasing the staff if they are to fulfill all official duties — both in the district and state house.