Since 1976 Alabama’s legislators have trekked to Montgomery for three and a half months every winter or early spring for annual sessions to approve budgets and vote on legislation concerning everything from abortion to the official state insect.
Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, a Republican candidate for governor, believes lawmakers could be more productive and spend less of the taxpayer’s money if the Legislature only met in regular session every other year, the way they did for decades before 1976.
The switch to annual sessions was approved in a constitutional amendment in 1975, a trend followed by most states.
In the early 1960s, only 19 states met annually. There are now only six states – Texas, Arkansas, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Oregon – that meet every other year, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
Moore said meeting every other year would curb the power of special interest groups. He said those groups currently control the way lawmakers vote, write many bills and even provide jobs for some legislators.
He said meeting every other year would also allow more ordinary citizens, with regular jobs, to serve in the Legislature.
“Today we have annual sessions and special sessions. Basically the legislators are in session throughout the year,” said Moore, who has made the move to biennial sessions a part of his campaign platform. “It doesn’t allow those who wish to retain their jobs to participate in the government process.”
With the state’s two operating budgets now totaling more than $6 billion and the economy fluctuating between good news and bad news from month to month, several key legislators said the business of the state has gotten so complicated the Legislature must meet every year.
“It would be a severe blow to good government. Over the last few years, the whole issue of being able to project revenue from year to year has been a considerable challenge,” said Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation-Education Committee. “The world is moving so fast these days that we cannot effectively make budgets over two years.”
Rep. Richard Lindsey, D-Centre, chairman of the House Education Finance and Appropriations Committee, said even with annual sessions, several times in the past 10 years the Legislature has been called into special session to deal with budget issues or emergencies that were not dealt with in the regular session.
“I think what you would see with biennial sessions is the governor calling special sessions to deal with the problems that crop up over the two-year period. This would put the governor in charge of the Legislature’s agenda more than usual,” Lindsey said.
In a special session, the governor declares what items lawmakers will consider and bills outside that agenda can only pass if they receive a two-thirds vote.
But Moore said preparing a budget for a two-year period would allow lawmakers to be more careful in planning how taxpayers’ money would be spent and cut down on spending for special projects in legislators’ districts.
“It’s a charade to allow legislators to come in and argue for pork barrel spending every year so they can keep their jobs,” Moore said.
Montgomery attorney Jere Beasley, who was lieutenant governor when the state switched from biennial to annual sessions in the 1970s, said he believes lawmakers can get all of their work, except for the budgets, done in one session every two years. He said a solution would be to have one regular session every two years and a shorter session in the off year to prepare that year’s budgets.
Six states -Connecticut, Louisiana, Maine, New Mexico, North Carolina and Wyoming – currently hold a full-blown session every other year and in the off year have a shorter session that is limited to consideration of specific types of legislation.
Former Gov. Fob James prepared a bill to switch to biennial sessions during his second term as governor in the mid-1990s, said Michael Ciamarra, who served as policy director for James.
Ciamarra said James felt it would be easier for people to serve in the Legislature if they only had to come to Montgomery every other year.
“If you are a businessman, it’s hard to take off three and a half months to serve in what is basically a full-time job,” said Ciamarra, vice president of the Birmingham-based Alabama Policy Institute.
The Legislature’s regular session currently runs for 30 meeting days over 105 calendar days. Ciamarra said one solution would be to hold sessions every other year, but to expand those sessions, possibly to 50 days. Before switching to annual sessions, the Legislature’s biennial sessions had to be completed in 36 meeting days over a six-month period, said McDowell Lee, secretary of the Alabama Senate.
The other major announced candidates in next year’s governor’s race are less certain that the state’s business could get completed if the Legislature only met every other year.
“At one time, when we could do it, we didn’t have such extreme swings in the economy,” said Gov. Bob Riley, who will be challenged by Moore in the June 6 Republican primary.
Former Gov. Don Siegelman, who is running for the Democratic Party nomination, said the state is facing “critical issues” that will require the Legislature to work every year.
“We’ve got to bring in quality jobs. … We’ve got to get Alabama moving forward in job creation. We’ve got to get Alabama moving forward in building schools,” Siegelman said. “I think to do these things you’ve got to have regular sessions. You can’t just say ‘we’re going to slow the pace down.’”
Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, also seeking the Democratic nomination, said she was worried that biennial sessions would mean more special sessions, which she said would give more power to the governor and less power to citizens.
“In my experience most of the issues that matter the most to the citizens are often decided by very close votes and must be debated and thrashed out by the voting members, who are elected by the public,” Baxley said. “We live in a rapidly changing world and there are matters of importance to the state that can only be addressed by the Legislature.”