The 2020 legislative session begins this week. It will be an interesting 3½ months.
There are many important issues that legislators have to address this year, as always. However, standing in the way of substantive state issues each year is the necessity to address local bills.
Our 1901 constitution is archaic in many aspects. One is that its drafters were reluctant to give home rule to counties for various reasons. Therefore, county governments and county commissions must come with hat in hand to their legislators to take care of even mundane matters.
People have asked me with dismay, after journeying to the Legislature for a view of the House and Senate in action, what is happening. They are astounded and often outraged at the scene on the floor. It appears that one legislator is at the microphone, and nobody else is paying attention. The other 100 legislators are milling around, visiting with each other, laughing, eating, talking on cellphones and doing everything under the sun but paying attention to the issue being introduced.
In the other chamber, visitors may see or hear a clerk reading a bill aloud and no senator is on the floor. This display of disorganization, disarray and lack of decorum is difficult to explain to school children who come to the Capitol for the day.
The reason is that the issue up for debate and passage is whether Fayette County can buy a tractor or Walker County can change the number of seats on a local water board. The bill affects one county, and the local legislative delegation is the only one that needs to vote on it.
This brings me to a pertinent point — the Legislature is not a good stepping stone to higher elective office. First, legislators earn no statewide name identification.
Second, they have a very extensive record of casting hundreds of votes. These votes can be scrutinized and distorted.
If a legislator chooses to abstain from voting on the other counties’ local bills, then he or she is recorded as not voting on over 100 votes in a session. An opponent can run an ad accusing the legislator of going to Montgomery but not even showing up to vote.
On the other hand, a good number of these local bills are not as benign as buying a tractor. A county commission may be asking for a bill to raise the local fuel tax to buy a fleet of tractors. Therefore, if you vote a yes as a courtesy to your legislative colleague, you are recorded as voting for millions of dollars in taxes. Then you have to run on that record.
There has been a lot of trickery over the years with local legislation. Therefore, legislators need to be aware of what might be hidden in these innocuous local acts their colleagues ask them to vote for.
A legendary, masterful act of deceit played on a legislator by another still reverberates almost 60 years later. It occurred during the second administration of Gov. “Big Jim” Folsom during the late 1950s.
State Reps. Emmett Oden of Franklin County and Jack Huddleston of Colbert County despised each other and were constantly at odds. Their two counties adjoin each other in northwest Alabama.
Oden introduced a local bill for Franklin County that repealed another local bill passed in December 1869. His brief explanation to the House when the measure came up for a vote was that it was simply a housekeeping bill that “corrects an error when the original bill was passed.”
Through the custom of “local courtesy,” the bill passed unanimously. Even Huddleston voted for it.
After passage of the measure, Oden told the press what his local bill actually did. The 1869 law, which he was repealing, created Colbert County out of Franklin County. Huddleston had just voted to abolish his own county.
That vote ended Huddleston’s political career. His constituents in Colbert County could not forgive that he had voted to abolish his own county.