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New House Bill Seeks Star Chamber Powers

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—A new bill sponsored by Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (R- Auburn) would create a joint-legislative committee that would not only pay its members, but also grant them the power to “approve, modify, or withhold” funds budgeted to State agencies and other government entities.

HB257 envisions a “Star Chamber” of elite legislators who would have power to not only control the flow of money within all State funded operations, but hold the power to investigate those bodies as well.

As stated in the bill, the committee can “authorize the Department of Finance to modify the planned expenditure of funds by State agencies and other entities and also “direct the Chief Examiner of Public Accounts to conduct an audit, review, or examination of any State agency or other entity”

The other entities are not only State agencies, but also, “departments, bureaus, boards, commissions, authorities, or other[s]” This covers the broad spectrum of State government with central authority given to the committee to dictate where money flows and also investigate whatever entity they chose.

This committee appointed by Speaker Hubbard and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) would not only have the power of purse but also the power to intimidate.

The bill carried by Democrat Rep. John Knight and co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Mac McCutcheon and Hubbard, would place unparalleled power in the hands of a few very powerful legislators.

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The bill states that the committee would “provide continuous legislative oversight of all State government operations,” in other words pretty much a full-time operation, where the members would receive additional compensation to their extra-legislative work.

A former State house staffer who spoke on background said, “This is a horrible idea, for two reasons. First, it provides for the payment of compensation and expense allowances to members of the committee, so it’s a way to make money during the off-season. And two, it allows the committee to ‘approve, modify, or withhold’ funds to each agency. Way too much power for a group that gets paid on top of their legislative salary to wield the power of the checkbook.”

If passed, the committee would be comprised of the Chair of the House Education Ways and Means Committee, the Chair of the House General Fund Ways and Means Committee, the Chair of the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee and the Chair of the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee. Additionally four members of the Senate appointed by the Senate President Pro Temp and four House members appointed by the Speaker.

With one all-powerful appointed committee given absolute power to “correct operational deficiencies within government” by means of investigation and redirecting the flow of money, it is a certainty that politics, not policy will dictate winners and losers.

Imagine for a moment that the committee decides that the Attorney General’s Office is allocating too many resources for investigating public corruption. By the authority of HB257, they could launch an investigation which could then result in funding being redirected from the white collar crimes unit to another part of the AG’s operation.

Is it beyond imagining that Hubbard, who is under indictment for 23 felony counts of public corruption, might use his political power to have the committee initiate such an action?

If that is difficult to believe, then try to think of the many ways this committee could be used as a political tool to control other aspects of government.

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Given the controlling nature of some in the Republican leadership, it is not a stretch to believe that this is yet another legislative overreach to gain more control, not more accountability.

According to Wikipedia, the modern usage of Star Chamber, refers to, “Legal or administrative bodies with strict, arbitrary rulings and secretive proceedings…this is a pejorative term and intended to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the proceedings.”

Bill Britt
Written By

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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