Thursday, April 26, 2007

This post is long, but it only dips once

Birmingham News reporter Brett Blackledge's continuing investigation into the employment practices in Alabama's two-year college system, the latest installment of which came today, has prompted curiosity as to whether one can defend the Pulitzer Prize like a championship belt. It also has revealed a convoluted web of connections between junior colleges and state lawmakers that raises an obvious question: Why do we allow legislators to draw paychecks from entities whose funding the Legislature controls?

Label the concern as double-dipping, conflict of interest, or whatever you'd like, but most people on Goat Hill seem to agree -- at least publicly -- that something has to change. The debate centers not on identifying the illness but on picking a cure with the least harmful side effects. And on this issue, people from each extreme want to play doctor.

On one side is Gov. Bob Riley, who wants legislators -- or, barring that, the state school board -- to forbid lawmakers from working in the two-year or K-12 systems while they serve in the Legislature. On the other is education lobbyist extraordinaire Paul Hubbert, who thinks the best check on any abuses is the same one we have now: a well-placed indictment here and there.

Riley's proposal has precisely no chance of escaping the Legislature alive this year. That's especially true because Riley is a Republican governor proposing a bill in a Democrat-controlled Legislature that could cost 39 Democratic lawmakers their seats. Things could get more interesting at the school board, where Riley is only one vote away from getting a ban approved. Still, Hubbert is the force to be reckoned with in Montgomery, so it wouldn't be entirely unwise to bet on the status quo as the ultimate outcome.

Independent of what will happen, of course, is what should happen. Three questions are relevant here. First, if a ban is approved, when should it apply? Second, is it fair to force some people, but not others, to choose between their job and their legislative service? And third, is there a better way to address this whole messy situation?

On the first point, if a "double-dipping" ban goes into effect immediately, it probably would lead some duly elected legislators to resign before serving out their current terms. If the Legislature opts for a ban, it should apply equally to all state employees and shouldn't take effect until the next round of legislative elections in 2010. Voters made their decisions last year, and no bill should try to force out their chosen representatives before their terms end.

As for the second question, a blanket ban on lawmakers getting paid for two state jobs sure does look good on the surface. It draws a clear line in the sand and eliminates suspicions of a conflict of interest in a legislator's votes or lobbying efforts on behalf of an entity. The appeal of the clear distinction is so strong, in fact, that state Sen. Rusty Glover, R-Semmes, fully supports Riley's proposal even though it would cost him his job as a high school teacher. (Principle? In our legislature? Imagine that.)

But it's important to remember that the Legislature is supposed to represent a cross-section of Alabama. We have geographic diversity -- every part of the state has a representative and senator of its very own -- but diversity of background is just as important. Businessmen, doctors, lawyers, etc., all bring their own valuable strengths and perspectives to public service, and so do education employees. It simply would seem unjust to force educators, many of whom work in the public sector because that's where the jobs are, to sacrifice their careers to run for public office, but to require no such choice from other professions.

There's a better answer: Make legislative service a full-time job. If all lawmakers have to surrender all other employment for the duration of their time on Goat Hill, no profession would face disincentives to serve that the others didn't. More importantly, we could alleviate concerns about conflicts of interest in both the public and private sectors. A full-time Legislature (with a full-time level of pay, which we now have) also could lure good candidates who otherwise might not be able to serve.

Full-time service would cost more, especially if we tacked on retirement benefits and a paid staffer or two to ease lawmakers' reliance on lobbyists to research and write bills. But the practical and ethical advantages a full-time Legislature would provide would be well worth the expense.


Anonymous Don said...

You nailed it! A full time legislature is the way to go. Several states already have full time legislatures, so it can be done. I might point out that all of those states’ legislatures consistently are rated as being better than Alabama’s.

While we’re at it, let’s improve even more by completely restructuring our legislature and making it the second unicameral state legislature in the USA. We have a model in the Nebraska legislature. At the same time cut the size of the legislature by only having from 7 to 10 members representing each of the 7 Congressional Districts for a total of from 49 to 70. Pay them about $65,000 per year and it will cost us less than the amount we pay 140 members now. If a member had a job where they had a retirement and/or health care plan in effect at the time they were elected, let the state assume responsibility for paying the employee’s contribution to that so it will stay in effect while they are in the legislature.

Naturally, the question is, “How do we make a change like that?” The answer is, “The same way Nebraskans did, by using Initiative and Referendum”. That’s the key to everything and if we want a state government that is one of, by, and for the people, voters should demand that the two members of the legislature that represent them pass HB263 and SB378 if they ever want to be elected to any public office in Alabama. Then keep demanding it over and over until they comply, and if they don’t comply vote them out of office in 2010.

7:50 AM  

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