With Alabama lawmakers on Goat Hill meeting for this year’s regular legislative session, the state’s political priorities for 2017 are becoming clear. The result? A mixed bag: for every good piece of legislation filed in the State House, there are another two terrible bills competing for votes and for passage. This year in Montgomery, it’s a mixture of political pros and capital cons.
A governor’s grave and good legislation
One of the biggest political pros of the legislative session thus far is the inching forward of the effort to impeach Gov. Robert Bentley. The governor — whose troubles began when his inappropriate relationship with a now-former staffer was revealed — has been avoiding questions about the impeachment for months, saying on a recent trip to Baldwin County that he thought the process was “in limbo.”
The impeachment process isn’t in limbo — it’s slowly moving forward — but it certainly has the governor bending over backward. Bentley’s office just refused, for example, media requests for copies of the Governor’s Mansion visitor logs, public records that Spencer Collier, former secretary of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, says he was asked to falsify. Those allegations, and many more like it, will be part of the impeachment committee’s purview over the coming weeks as it moves toward a final vote on the issue.
Besides the governor digging his own grave, there are other political pros of 2017 so far, even in the legislative session.
House Bill 321, sponsored by Rep. Bob Fincher, if passed would allow Alabamians to vote on a constitutional amendment that would cap interest rates on payday loans at 36 percent annually. The legislation would be a huge victory for grassroots nonprofits such as Alabama ARISE that have been fighting to end predatory consumer lending in the state.
According to statistics from the Center for Responsible Lending and the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are four times as many payday lending locations in Alabama as McDonald’s locations. These lenders offer high-interest loans that can cost consumers many times the amount they borrowed, with annual interest rates sometimes as high as 456 percent.
House Bill 277, sponsored by Rep. Pebblin Warren, would require churches and religious nonprofits with preschools and daycare to be licensed. Right now, all nonreligious entities — nonprofit and for profit — are required to have a license, but churches and religious organizations are exempted. They shouldn’t be.
As Mobilians learned in 2015 when three dozen boys were removed from Solid Rock Ministries’ facilities on Springhill Avenue following allegations of abuse and neglect, religious affiliation does not prevent bad things from happening. Licensing of all facilities — not just secular ones — is one way to decrease the likelihood of a situation like the one in Mobile, and the Alabama Legislature should pursue it.
HB316, sponsored by Rep. Ken Johnson, would legalize the long-forbidden practice of midwifery in Alabama. Midwifery has been illegal in the state for years, not least because of its origins and prevalence in the black community. The current ban on the practice is in spite of countless studies — including a clinical assessment by Britain’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence — that children born under the supervision of a midwife fare better than those born in maternity wards under the supervision of a doctor. HB316 would end this irony and legitimize the practice for future generations of Alabamians.
Burning bridges and bad legislation
One of the biggest capital cons so far this year didn’t even happen in Montgomery. During an event marking the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma that was held in historic Brown’s Chapel, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill stuck his foot in his mouth — or should have, if he knew what was good for him.
Merrill, in front of a crowd that included nationally acclaimed civil rights activists, brought up Alabama’s voter identification law, a rhetorical faux pas that led to audible protests and a walkout by several in attendance including North Carolina Rev. William Barber, who began that state’s “Moral Monday” movement.
With one speech, Merrill burned what bridge he had with the civil rights community. Voter ID laws have been proven by social scientists to make it more difficult for marginalized voters such as minorities and the elderly to successfully participate in elections. These laws also decrease voter turnout and are aimed at addressing a problem that doesn’t exist: in-person voting fraud. A 2012 study of voting fraud by Arizona State University, for example, found that instances of fraud at the ballot box are “infinitesimal.”
Most of the capital cons of the year, though, have come from Goat Hill. Several bills being considered by State House politicos have far-reaching, negative consequences.
Senate Bill 24, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Allen, would allow Alabamians to carry a pistol without a license “on property under his or her control, including vehicles and places of business.” The last thing Alabama needs is gunmen on every roadway in the state, something a representative from the Sheriffs’ Association (which opposes the bill) brought up to me several years ago when a similar bill was introduced. “Ever heard of road rage?” he asked me.
“I know I get it,” he said. “And you’ve got a gun, and I’ve got a gun.” Tempers may flare, and bullets may fly, he suggested. “They may give you a shot instead of the bird.”
SB193, sponsored by Sen. Jabo Waggoner, would allow Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Jefferson County to establish its own police force. Churches are welcome to have security but, at least in my book, they shouldn’t get to have a “certified police force.” Those should be exclusively for governments, not religious institutions.
SB145, sponsored by Sen. Bill Hightower, would prevent the state from “discriminating” against child adoption agencies that refuse to place children in circumstances they morally disagree with — namely in homes with same-sex parents. It’s the height of irony for Hightower to say the bill prevents “discrimination” against religious adoption agencies. The bill does indeed prevent discrimination — discrimination against these adoption agencies for discriminating against same-sex couples.
The Legislature meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays every week until late May, when it will adjourn until 2018.