You know you’re on an important mission when it requires a stop at a Waffle House in Evergreen at 8 a.m. Doing the math, that means we crossed the boob of the Dolly Parton Bridge pretty early in the day.
It may not have been a mission from God, a la “The Blues Brothers,” but it felt like one — and we were going to need some hash browns scattered, covered, smothered and chunked. Or as in my partner’s case, covered with ketchup, which I think in WH shorthand is “bloodied.” Tastes great but looks not so good.
Yes, the mission was important enough that my friend and co-publisher of this rag, Ashley, her fears quelled by Heinz-covered shredded taters and an over-easy egg, actually threw aside her great-grandmotherly driving instincts and put the pedal to the metal.
We were on our way to Montgomery to spend the day trying to talk to legislators about a bill we’d like to see passed — one that would allow free newspapers like Lagniappe to sell legal advertising (aka “public notices) just like every other newspaper around. That was going to mean a full day of walking the halls of the Alabama State House trying to bend legislators’ ears.
While the issue at hand was important to us, we both were equally excited about the opportunity to see first-hand how things work in Montgomery. It may sound strange or even like a dereliction of duty, but neither of us has made it to Montgomery for a legislative session since starting Lagniappe more than a dozen years ago.
Ashley last went when she was in fourth grade and was probably fueled more by Froot Loops than Waffle House. As a Mississippi boy a trip to Goat Hill would have included an extremely confused bus driver. And even as newspaper people we’ve never really found the time to go up there and see what’s happening — even though it’s been discussed many times.
Shockingly it was raining, but we managed to find a parking spot near the State House, which is where the legislators have their offices. We were told to just find a spot and accept the fact we’d get a parking ticket, but I fed the meter a couple of quarters just the same. The capitol building was just across the street but we wouldn’t be darkening its doorway. Instead we entered the beehive that is the State House.
Having worked on Capitol Hill for a bit I thought I had an idea of what to expect, but this was nothing like Washington. There even on a busy day you can wander through the hallways of the Senate our House buildings and only occasionally see an elected official — mostly staffers scurrying about doing their masters’ bidding.
That’s not the case in Montgomery. The halls were swarming with legislators and lobbyists all seemingly engaged in three conversations at once. The second a legislator finished a conversation someone else was sure to grab him or her “for just a second.” I was impressed by the activity level. There certainly weren’t a bunch of people sitting around smoking cigars, swilling scotch and guffawing about how they’d just let Alabama Power screw the public out of billions. (Just joking. Please don’t raise my rates.)
The bill we’re interested in seeing passed would remove the requirement newspapers must have a publications class postal permit in order to run legal ads, which deal with things like probate issues and letting citizens know which bills are being proposed. The postal permit is an outdated requirement that blocks free papers like Lagniappe — the second largest publication in the area — from even being able to offer the service, while tiny newspapers like the Citronelle Call-News and the Mobile Beacon make it a major part of their businesses.
It doesn’t make any sense why the U.S. Post Office is deciding what a newspaper is in Alabama anyway, but it’s a big money issue across the state and those papers that have the advertising, as well as their lobbyists with the Alabama Press Association, sure don’t want any competition for it.
Since the bill that would remove this provision is being debated in the State Government Committee, our first order of business was to start trying to meet with people on that committee, as well as folks from our own local delegation. The local delegation was pretty easy to see and most were supportive of the change. One or two were worried about upsetting the other newspapers in the county or the APA, but that’s probably to be expected.
What was interesting as we made the rounds was just how busy everyone seemed to be. Describing it as a beehive is appropriate. Every legislator seemed to be running from one meeting to another or had people waiting outside the office door. Very few had any sort of secretarial staff and the offices bore no resemblance to the palatial suites enjoyed by the Representatives and Senators in D.C. The term “glorified closet” came to mind when I entered several offices.
We sat in on a State Government Committee meeting, and what was interesting was the role lobbyists played in providing useful information to the committee members. That’s not to say there’s not plenty of spin taking place in those hallways — our bill was being roundly trashed around the building by the APA and publishers worried about competition — but the lobbyists also do seem to play a rather important role just in terms of offering objective information as well.
As the day wound on the biggest issue on the legislative agenda — charter schools — began to take precedence over everything else. It was a bit like the water draining out of the bathtub. All of the sudden the legislators were gone to debate that issue.
We sat down to have an unproductive meeting with the Press Association lobbyists and by 5 p.m. Ashley was stomping the pedal again to get us home.
All in all it was an eye-opening trip to the sausage factory that is Goat Hill. Certainly I can’t say I’m any expert on exactly what happens there, but I did gain some respect for the amount of work being done by the people we’ve elected. If nothing else they were running hard.
We didn’t even get a parking ticket either, so between that and enjoying a hash brown autopsy, I’ll rate the visit a learning experience and at least a modest success.
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