Here’s a New Year’s resolution for the politicians in Montgomery. In 2017, let’s let common sense prevail, because with the new year comes Alabama’s annual circus. And no, I’m not talking about Barnum & Bailey. It’s the other annual showcase of our state’s misfits and malcontents: the regular legislative session in Montgomery, and the potential for another year of political mistakes and malfeasance. This year, though, Montgomery should drop the circus act, and instead focus on issues that really matter: problems that can be solved by common-sense solutions.
One problem that everyone in Montgomery — even those political misfits — recognize is that if Montgomery is a circus, the state’s general fund budget is an insatiable, money-hungry lion that the ringmasters have nearly starved to death. Every year, that beast of a budget demands more, and it’s always a one-time meal, not a long-term feast, that lawmakers are able to scramble together last minute to prevent its untimely demise. One common sense part of the solution? The lottery, a permanent revenue source that lobbyists and lawmakers have prevented us from voting on for years.
Already, several lawmakers have prefiled legislation for 2017’s regular legislative session that would bring the lottery to a vote statewide, but that’s far from the last word. The opposition to the lottery by lobbyists and some legislators in the State House make letting the people vote no easy task. In a special session earlier this year, both the Alabama House and Senate passed different versions of a lottery bill but couldn’t agree on the details, killing the idea for 2016.
In any case, a lottery certainly wouldn’t fully address the fundamental, structural funding disparities between the state’s education and general fund budgets, but it’d be one step closer than Goat Hill’s politicos have gotten us so far.
Aside from Alabama’s financial woes, there’s another area where the state’s political leadership should resolve to use a bit of common sense this new year: criminal justice and judicial reform. So far, when it comes to legislation already filed in preparation of the 2017 session, it’s a mixed bag when it comes to judicial reform.
In some specific areas, hope springs eternal. Three different legislators — two Democrats and a Republican — independently filed bills that would end the state’s policy of allowing judges to singlehandedly overturn the decision of a jury when it comes to cases involving the death penalty — a practice known as “judicial override.” Alabama is the only state allowing judicial overrides, in spite of a U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring Florida’s nearly identical scheme unconstitutional. As recently as early December, the state of Alabama executed Ronald B. Smith after a judge overturned a jury’s vote to sentence Smith to life in prison without parole. These news bills, though, would bring common sense back to these death penalty cases, placing firmly in a jury’s hands — not a single judge’s — the decision of whether or not to inflict the ultimate, irreversible punishment of death.
Another glimmer of hope this upcoming session is a bill that epitomizes common sense. The piece of legislation, sponsored by a veteran House Democrat, would clarify in Alabama law that a person can only be charged with resisting arrest when they are charged with another crime. It seems so obvious, you almost miss the apparent Catch-22: If you aren’t being arrested for a crime, how could you resist arrest? It’s a conundrum both legal and mental that the bill’s sponsor says some constituents she’s heard from have had to deal with over the years.
One law enforcement official asked about the bill said he doesn’t believe the crime is often charged alone anyway, so he’s not particularly opposed. Sounds like an easy problem to fix — and one with little opposition — so let’s resolve to get it done this ear, Montgomery.
Along with those glimpses of pragmatism, though, there are, of course, the rotten apples. The first bill prefiled in the Alabama Senate is analogous to North Carolina’s now-infamous “bathroom bill,” which addresses the perceived issue of use of the bill’s titular facilities by transgender people. That North Carolina legislation has already lost the state tens of millions of dollars in revenue because of corporate and individual blowback from the bill — including decisions by the NCAA and the NBA to move major events from the state, which is known for its powerhouse basketball teams. Alabama, with a GDP half that of North Carolina, shouldn’t try to follow after the Tar Heel State, but instead learn from its mistakes.
Another couple of rotten apples that may pop during the upcoming year’s legislative session involve the Judicial Inquiry Commission and the Court of the Judiciary, the bodies that underwent proceedings against now-suspended Chief Justice Roy Moore over his refusal to follow an order of the U.S. Supreme Court involving same-sex marriage. Two bills prefiled for next session in the State House would gut these institutions, protecting from scrutiny judges like Moore. One bill would completely abolish the JIC and the other, sponsored by local Senator Bill Hightower, would require the Legislature to approve of all appeals such as Moore’s, who is currently appealing his suspension.
Aside from the obvious muddying of the separation of powers that would cause in our state’s government, Hightower and his colleague are making political what shouldn’t be: straightforward, nonpartisan agreement on the importance of the ethics of our state’s judges. Moore shouldn’t be protected by Montgomery if he’s unethical; that’s just common sense. Our lawmakers should decide in this new year to ignore those rotten apples and do what’s best for the Yellowhammer State.
So there’s my New Year’s resolution for Montgomery: Use common sense. When you see rotten apples, throw them out. When you know something makes sense, say so with your vote, and not just your Twitter account. Political leadership is hard, but it pays off. And that’s the real key to a New Year’s resolution.
At a birthday party over the holidays, we discussed New Year’s resolutions when I said I’d be choosing one for Montgomery to follow this year. Local amateur historian David Sprinkle pointed out the ultimate truth about them, one I’ll repeat here: New Year’s resolutions are usually what’s good for you, and so they’re usually the things you end up never doing.
This year, I hope it’s different. I hope you’re able to keep your New Year’s resolution, and we can hope together that Montgomery will, too.