Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Alabama legislative session winds down to cheers and jeers

 Montgomery, Al.-Sometime around midnight Thursday, the Alabama Legislature will adjourn and close the books on one of the most prolific sessions in state history.
It was, depending on whom you ask, either a triumph or a disaster.
Republicans held a majority for the first time in more than a century, and used that advantage to pass sweeping changes to the state’s ethics, education, immigration and campaign finance laws. The body of work was striking both for its volume and its magnitude — all conducted during a harsh economic climate that placed extraordinary pressure on state budgets.
"The pace has been grueling," state Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, said Tuesday. "But when you stop for a minute and look at how far we’ve come, it’s very gratifying."
Democrats had a different view. They said that the new laws, taken en masse, punish the poor and powerless while rewarding the rich and powerful.
alan-baker-brewton-alabama.jpgState Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton: "When you stop for a minute and look at how far we’ve come, it’s very gratifying."

"The priorities have changed from helping working families to protecting big corporations," said state Sen. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill. "That’s not what people voted for in November, and I think they’re beginning to realize that."
Republican lawmakers from the Mobile area played a major role in the session.
State Rep. Victor Gaston, R-Mobile, served as president pro tempore of the House, and GOP lawmakers credited him with a masterful job in keeping their caucus unified through a series of contentious votes.
State. Rep. Jim Barton, R-Mobile, took on a thankless job as chairman of the House General Fund Budget Committee, and won bipartisan praise for making the best of the state’s crippled finances.
State. Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, and state Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, carried one of the session’s most significant and controversial bills through approval. The so-called Students First Act, fiercely opposed by the Alabama Education Association, grants local school boards more authority to remove bad teachers.
Pittman and Fincher "went to great lengths to ensure this bill was fair and we believe this will benefit the education profession in the long run," said state Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston.
Democratic leaders said that the tenure bill, coupled with the elimination of more than 1,100 teaching jobs and cuts to teacher pay and benefits, amounted to war on the state’s education community.
"Never has there been such an assault on our schools and the people who work in them," members of the House Democratic Caucus said in a news release.
The AEA called the session "the worst in a generation for schools and the people who work in them, and it’s not even over yet."
Others said the supermajority enjoyed by the Republicans — which enabled them to stop debate by a vote of cloture — bordered on totalitarianism.
Mark Kennedy, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party, said that Republicans shattered the record for the number of cloture votes during a single session.
"When you’re not allowing a debate on the merits of legislation — when you’re not allowing the voices of minority lawmakers to be heard on an issue — that’s not good government. That’s not even a democracy," Kennedy said.
House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said that the GOP was simply delivering on the "Handshake with Alabama," a platform of promises it made to voters during last year’s election.
"Everyone is allowed to have a voice in the process. But not everyone is entitled to getting everything they want," Hubbard said. "That’s what elections are about. People put us in charge to change things in Montgomery, and we were committed to accomplishing that."
He said that lawmakers toiled long and hard because they felt a sense of responsibility to Alabama’s working people. He said he was particularly proud that they completed the process of redrawing congressional districts, eliminating the need for a special session on the issue. The extra effort, he said, saved taxpayers more than $500,000.
"This will go down as one of the most productive sessions in our state’s history," Hubbard said, "and we still have a day to go."

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