By Lee Hedgepeth
Alabama Political Reporter
News headlines flowing from Montgomery late this legislative session have focused on many controversial topics – something that some politicos had said was unlikely in an election year, but that is happening nonetheless.
Chief among these has been a bill proposed by GOP lawmakers that would increase representation on the Birmingham Water Works Board to include members from outside Jefferson County, an undertaking spearheaded by Senator Jabo Waggoner in the Senate and Representative Paul Demarco in the House.
Another hot topic up for debate has been Senator Scott Beason’s gun bill, which would allow Alabamians to carry loaded pistols in their vehicles without a concealed carry permit.
While these two issues were before completely unrelated, events late last week – and likely to continue this week – have proven the topics to be inextricably linked.
Support for Senator Beason’s gun legislation, SB354, seemed half-hearted when it was discussed in a public hearing that APR covered earlier this session, with many lawmakers seemingly worried about the funding currently raked in locally from concealed carry permit fees.
Coverage of the hearing, and video interviews of Beason and a representative of the Sheriffs’ Association can be viewed here.
Half-hearted seemed like an absolute understatement last week in the Senate, though, when Senator Beason, R-Gardendale, not only had to wheel and deal to get his bill on the calendar, he did not – and still has not – gotten the legislation through the upper body, much less through the lower chamber.
Once the Birmingham Water Works bill came to the Senate floor for debate, the show began. Senator Rodger Smitherman, former Senate Pro Tem, brought out an easel with an oversized-poster map of the Birmingham Water Works and its service infrastructure and customer base.
He had already brought the map out earlier in the session, when he successfully prevented a final vote on the bill through filibuster, providing an opportunity for this observation by Senator Gerald Dial:
“When I came in here earlier and saw all the charts, I thought… haven’t we already reapportioned? Then I figured out it’s just the water board they’re trying to reapportion.”
Reporting on that failed attempt to push the bill though the Senate can be read here.
Just like that attempt, last week’s water works round two looked to be headed the same way when GOP leadership failed to pass a cloture petition that would have cut off debate and forced an up or down vote. The vote failed by one – and Senator Scott Beason had not participated in the vote.
“I won the vote,” Senator Smitherman said once the ayes and nays were cast, “I guess I’ll just keep talking.”
Smitherman has pledged to “slow down” every bill until session ends over the water works bill.
The Democrat didn’t know just yet, but another vote to cut him off was on the way. The GOP leadership had something Beason wanted, and they were about to give it to him.
After another cloture petition was filed, and a vote on cutting off debate was called for. Senator Beason voted to cut off debate with GOP leadership, casting the deciding twenty first vote. The Birmingham Water Works bill then passed the Senate, and has now been assigned to a House committee for further action.
The next day, it came time for Senate Republican leadership to decide the agenda of the day – and for Senator Beason to reap his reward.
Senator Waggoner, also the sponsor of the water works bill, as chair of the Senate Rules Committee put forward the day’s special order calendar, which included – first on the list – a certain gun bill from a certain Gardendale Republican.
After debate was heard, and after an unsuccessful effort by Republican Gerald Dial to substitute the calendar for one without Beason’s bill was over, the gun bill hit the floor.
That is where it ended, though, so far. After several hours of debate at the end of last week, the Senate has not yet passed Senator Beason’s legislation. Effectively held up by Republicans, the bill may see a final vote as early as this week.
From what APR has gathered, the Senators holding the bill up seem to be doing so for different reasons.
Senator Gerald Dial has said that both the gun debate and the water works debate are “for ego,” declaring the time spent on debating them “the two ego days.”
Senator Phil Williams has expressed concerns over concealed carry permit fee revenues, even putting forward an amendment on the topic, though it is unsure as of right now how its ambiguous language would be implemented.
The remaining Senators preventing cloture, including Bryan Taylor, may be doing so in an attempt to get his bill enhancing gambling penalties heard in committee.
Senator Taylor said on Twitter, “Indian casino lobbyists just actively blocked the quorum needed for cmte to consider my bill to increase penalties on ILLEGAL casinos.”
When asked who did not show up for the meeting, Senator Taylor confirmed that the two Democrats and one Independent on the committee were not present, but would not identify the GOP Senators.
Senator Smitherman, who also led the filibuster of Beason’s bill, has said that he is not opposed to the legislation, but is doing this because of the water works bill.
He has gone as far in expressing his reverence for the Second Amendment by saying , “If there were an intruder into the Senate chamber, Senator Smitherman said on the floor, “I’ll bust a cap…all 35 of y’all just get behind me.”
Alabamians can learn much from all of this. Issues on Goat Hill are not always evaluated on their merit, but on political expediency. Votes on a particular issue aren’t necessarily about the topic purportedly at hand. Senator Smitherman is willing to protect the Senate if necessary. Best of all though: don’t bring a chart to a gun fight?