By Brandon Demyan
In 2013, five of Alabama’s elected officials resigned before their term expired to pursue other employment. Three members of the Alabama House of Representatives took positions that potentially require lobbying of the Legislature. Currently, former state officials may not lobby their former department or “legislative body” until two years has elapsed; however, the Alabama Senate and Alabama House of Representatives have been determined by the Alabama Ethics Commission to be two separate bodies. In practice, this allows the three former Representatives to immediately begin lobbying the Senate, or vice versa, without waiting the required two years. This “Legislative Body Loophole” runs contrary to the original intent of the statute and must be fixed.
Resigning in the middle of a term causes a number of issues. First, special elections are normally held on dates that do not coincide with general election or primary dates and garner notoriously low voter turnout. These low turnout races allow special interest groups in Alabama to have a significant impact on the outcome.
Recently, the strong Republican seat in House District 74 was inundated by approximately $23,000 worth of Alabama Education Association (AEA) ads attacking pro-school choice candidate Charlotte Meadows. As a result of the paltry 16% turnout during the runoff, the AEA spent upwards of $6 on each vote. In short, a few hundred votes in a low-turnout special election can be the difference in electing a representative.
Second, each local primary, runoff, and general election costs the taxpayers approximately $40,000, regardless of how many voters show up. To replace the three House of Representatives seats, the citizens of Alabama spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars. Special elections are meant for extraordinary circumstances such as death of a member or incapacity. With State budget woes and cuts to programs statewide, a special election to replace a representative who simply wants to leave the job they campaigned hard to win is not a good use of taxpayer resources.
Finally, resigning from the Legislature to immediately lobby former colleagues creates a serious conflict of interest. In order for bills to be passed, a House member likely has allies in the Senate, and vice versa, who have helped shepherd bills through the legislative process. Of course, the newly minted lobbyists will likely make first contact with those same allies and friends.
Thankfully, some in the Alabama Legislature recognize the need to close the “Legislative Body Loophole” and thereby solve these three key issues. First, the incentive for legislators to resign during their term would be removed. Alabamians should have a reasonable expectation that their representative or senator will hold up their end of the democratic process. Resigning early for a job opportunity largely created by the official’s tenure in public office fuels the cynicism that so often plagues the public’s perception of politicians. Second, it would save valuable revenue because the taxpayers of Alabama would not have to bankroll multiple special elections. Third, elected officials must be held to the ethical standards that were already intended by the law. Keep in mind, the original lobbying restraints were passed to prevent legislators from immediately turning into lobbyists.
Simply put, it is time for Alabama to slam the revolving door shut.