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Sunset Changes Would “Silence” Minority, Members of Both Parties Skeptical

By Lee Hedgepeth
Alabama Political Reporter

Yesterday in the Alabama State House, members of the Senate’s Governmental Affairs Committee held their first meeting of the 2014 legislative session, and it did not take long for the debate to get heated.

One bill before the committee, SB16, would make changes to certain sunset procedures. The proposal drew some criticism from both sides of the aisle.

In general, many state government agencies have “sunset” provisions, allowing for all or part of an entity to dissolve after a specified period of time unless acted on by the legislature at the recommendation of the Sunset Committee. Because of the sheer number of such agencies, some legislators, like Senator Phil Williams of Cherokee, support making changes that would allow the full body to vote on sunsetting legislation together, if so recommended by the Sunset Committee, in an effort to – as Williams explained – make better use of the “legislative economy” that members must deal with: a limited time in which to make a lot of decisions.

Others, though, see the bill quite differently.

When her time to speak on the proposal came, the Senate’s top Democrat Vivian Figures had no qualms. “Let’s get real,” she began. She said the effort is merely another attempt to “suppress the minority’s opportunity to have time at the microphone.” In the past, with sunset bills required to be passed individually, the minority has seized the opportunity to slow things down in the Senate.

Another of the three Democrats on the Governmental Affairs Committee had serious frustrations to air. Senator Linda Coleman said that during her time in the body, she has come to understand the crucial role sunset procedures provide and she is not ready to see that go away. Sunset is very important, she said, because it allows an individual assessment of each provision by the public and by the legislators themselves.

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Republican Senator Dick Brewbaker expressed doubts similar to those of the committee’s Democrats, saying that the reason he left the House of Representatives is because of the completely insignificant role the minority had played. “I’ve served as a member of the minority party,” Brewbaker said, and the House’s example, he explained, is not one the Senate should follow.

“I don’t care who’s in charge,” Senator Williams responded to the criticisms, “this is about legislative economy.”

The Sunset Committee, which would make the relevant recommendations about when to vote on provisions separately, is currently composed of 12 members, six from the House and six from the Senate. Only two Democrats serve on the committee, Senator Vivian Figures and Senator Laura Hall. Republicans include Representatives Sanderford, Patterson, Gaston, Buttram, and Weaver, as well as Senators Taylor, Brewbaker, Bussman, Reed, and Marsh

Despite the debate and concerns expressed, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee did vote favorably for the measure, 6-3-1, with all Democrats in opposition and Senator Brewbaker abstaining. With the Committee’s favorable report – and a second reading of the bill, which occurred later in the day – SB16 could be passed as early as later this afternoon. This does seem possible, too, as Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh has promised a marathon legislative session today, with voting to take place throughout.

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