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Alabama House adopts new rules amid COVID pandemic

The House updated them for operating under the ever-present threat of COVID-19.

The Alabama House chambers. (FILE PHOTO)

The Alabama House of Representatives on Wednesday passed new rules, updating them for operating under the ever-present threat of COVID-19. House Resolution 15 was sponsored by Rules Committee Chairman Mike Jones, R-Andalusia.

Jones explained that the rule changes take into account the new voting iPads lawmakers are using, and it extends the rules of the House Chamber to the House Gallery as well as to the two overflow rooms on the sixth floor of the Statehouse that the members are now using. Jones said that members, staff and public can now be punished for acting contrary to the health and safety of the other members. This was necessary because of COVID-19.

“This was not previously covered under the rules,” Jones explained.

A person who is not masked or is not properly social distancing can be removed from the chamber, a committee meeting or even the building by security. A member could be disciplined for violating this or the other rules. Jones said that information left for members at their desk or in their box should have an author’s name on it. A member leaving such information should have their name at the top corner of that document.

“Anonymous correspondence will be investigated and if a member is found responsible; they may be censured,” Jones said.

Persons leaving anonymous information about a bill “may be banned from the floor or offices.” This was already in the rules, but it was extended to include the gallery and the overflow rooms.

“The existing rule applied only to the House floor,” Jones explained. “Because we extended the House floor to the gallery and to the two overflow rooms or any other location used by the House for legislative purposes. This would include the space just behind the gallery.”

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Jones said that the speaker of the House may order security to deal with any breach of the peace.

Jones said the rules would also apply “if we had to move our House location.”

Jones explained that anyone causing a disturbance or acting in a manner that is not protecting the health and safety of the members can be removed from the chamber or other locations used by the House or legislative staff. This applies to all areas controlled by the House.

“That includes the Archives room in the Capitol Building which is controlled by the House. That will be a live feed committee room,” Jones said. “The speaker may authorize security to remove any member or other person acting contrary to the health and safety of others.”

Jones explained that public hearings will be held in a manner prescribed by the chair. Speakers before the committee may either speak one at a time. Security will escort them to the meeting and out or the committee can hold a Zoom-type meeting. The rules will allow the chair of the committee to make that decision.

“We hope that after the vaccine has proliferated the state that we can get back to more normalcy,” Jones said.

Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Midfield, asked how it would be determined that a member was causing a disturbance in a committee.

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That would be determined by the chair, Jones answered.

Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, asked what would be the punishment would be if the rules were broken.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, answered: “We would have to see what the crime is first. We would make that determination on a cases by case basis.”

Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D-Mobile, asked if members could still have signs as props during floor debates.

Jones said: “We are not taking that away.”

Jones said that the rules are based on Mason’s Big Book of Rules. The Legislature had been using the 2010 edition of Mason’s. This updates it to the 2020 edition.

“Appeal is to a vote of the body,” Jones explained.

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“The present leadership is fair,” Bracy warned. “But my concern is that in the future leadership will not be fair. The deck is already stacked against me.”

Jones explained that members of the public can still request to speak on a bill, but they have to “give advance notice” do it in a timely manner. “Most requests come within a day or two of the bill being dropped.”

Jones explained that now the Legislature has four rooms with a live feed, with a fifth to soon come online.

Jones explained that the chair of the committee will pick the number of people from each side who will be allowed to speak on a bill and the time that each person will be allowed to speak

“The only change is testimony through Skype or Zoom,” Jones said.

The rule changes were adopted by the House. Wednesday was the second day of the 2021 Legislative Session.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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