Alabama’s constitution is said to be among the longest in the world and certainly the most unwieldy among all 50 states. The reason for some of that is leaving ridiculous prohibitions on the books long after the original necessity — assuming there ever was one — has gone. That’s why until Rep. Chris Pringle pushed a bill to help clean up some of the state’s dumber laws, it was still illegal in Alabama to catch a garfish and throw it back into the water alive or to sell chickens after dark.
And after spending the past few months working to try to change another completely useless law Pringle sought to remove, I can easily see why it can be so hard to amend a little logic into the constitution.
Many of you may have followed the efforts to do away with the requirement that newspapers have a publications class postal permit before being allowed to run public notice advertising. Changing this law in Mobile County would have allowed Lagniappe to begin competing for the same advertising sold by the Press-Register, Citronelle Call News and Mobile Beacon. We thought the arguments for why the change is both wanted and needed were watertight, but last week a member of Mobile County’s legislative delegation played politics and shut the matter down without even letting us all gather in the same room for a discussion.
Rep. David Sessions of Grand Bay pulled rank as the chairman of the local delegation and refused to hold a hearing or vote on changing this antiquated law, regardless of the fact the city, county and local bar association have all expressed support for it, as did most of his own delegation. Scratching the hearing came as a surprise to everyone working to get the law changed because bills that would only be voted on by the Mobile County delegation almost always at least get that courtesy. But Sessions wasn’t going to let that happen.
The move was so out of the ordinary that one member of the delegation apologized and told me this is wasn’t how things are supposed to work.
So why did Sessions block the bill? His flippant excuse was he had decided Lagniappe should have to get a permit because other local newspapers did too. I guess that’s a point, even though none of us was alive when they got theirs, and the horse was still a major mode of transportation. If a law made sense in 1890 it makes sense forever, right?
When I spoke with Sessions, his decision not to hold a hearing appeared to be made out of significant ignorance of the bill and of the newspaper business in general. We had sought to educate him during our recent trips to Montgomery, but when he saw us coming he generally wandered off the other way or quickly brushed past. So we hoped Sessions and a few others who made themselves scarce as hen’s teeth would at least get to hear what we had to say during a public hearing.
So why would Sessions deny even just having a hearing and vote on the issue? Let’s start from the beginning.
Public notice advertising is a big deal in every county in the state. For many small newspapers in rural counties it may be the difference between life and death. It adds up lots of money because notices have to be run for every foreclosure, estate hearing, proposed law, ordinance change, zoning change, etc. Between the city of Mobile and the county, it’s hundreds of thousands a year. For attorneys doing probate work it’s far more. Across the state it comes out to millions and millions of dollars a year.
The system here started breaking down when the Press-Register reduced to three days a week. Notices were run improperly or not at all, creating problems when probate cases came to court. Things got bad enough that earlier this year Mobile County Probate Court Judge Don Davis banned the P-R from taking certain types of ads for a while. Advertisers started shifting public notice purchases to the much smaller Citronelle Call News, despite it only having a circulation of about 5,500 papers and reaching almost no one in Mobile.
Last year Lagniappe started getting calls from the city and county agencies, as well as law firms, asking us to find a way to start running legal ads. So we tried. We spent seven months working with the Post Office to get the permit, but were ultimately denied at the federal level because Lagniappe is a free newspaper. The Postal Service requires at least 50 percent of a newspaper’s circulation be paid in order to qualify for the permit, which meant we would have to start charging in order to meet the requirement.
Anyone who knows anything about the newspaper business can tell you trying to start a subscription-based paper these days is like putting your money into rotary phones. The business has changed. But on top of all of that, the postal permit does nothing to guarantee public notices are being run properly or appearing in newspapers with wide circulation. Some microscopic publications sell these ads. The requirement is there to create a hurdle for anyone who might compete with the old-line newspapers that have had their permits for decades. Every other part of the public notices law has been manipulated to serve old-school newspapers that belong to the Alabama Press Association.
Now I will say the majority of the Mobile County Legislative Delegation did listen intently to what the city, county, bar association and Lagniappe have had to say about changing this law, but a few representatives have made it clear they’re not fans of your favorite weekly newspaper. Some don’t like the way we covered Sam Jones, or issues with their own political races. Others don’t like us breaking news about Kim Hastie’s troubles, or delving into the mess that was the Mobile County Water, Sewer and Fire Protection District. Some, it seems, would prefer a newspaper that only publishes pictures of quilting bees.
Most of the objections we heard dealt not with the bill, but with personal agendas. A few legislators were able to express their personal issues and also look at the bill on its merits. Others weren’t.
A couple also made it clear they were more concerned about ensuring the Press-Register, Call News or Mobile Beacon don’t have more competition. In the end David Sessions gave everyone with a personal agenda a free pass and pushed aside the wants and needs of the taxpayers forced to spend money on these ads.
Sessions played the stopper so he and a few others could continue to crow about being pro-business and pro-taxpayer. The non-vote lets everyone hide his or her agenda. Personally I have no problem with legislators voting one way or another on this issue, but hiding from a hearing is shirking their duties.
After seeing the way Sessions and his cohorts chickened out on even discussing a bill for purely personal and political reasons, it’s hard to imagine them scratching up the courage to do much of anything in Montgomery that’s not self-serving.
I guess some of our legislators haven’t figured out that part of being an elected official is still doing your job even if you get your feathers ruffled.