Mitchell shares some reform ideas

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 7, 2001

The Editorial page editor of the Montgomery Advertiser recently asked me to write a statement on legislative reform within the Senate.

I am going to share some of those remarks with you in this column.

Reform within any organization or group is difficult.

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Reform of the organizational structure of the Alabama State Senate, at least in the past, has been almost impossible.

Until this current quadrennium began just two years ago, Alabama was only one of seven states in the nation which did not have a formal internal organization within its state senate.

To put it another way, 43 states have had a formal internal organizational structure for many years.

Our inaction can best be understood because historically Alabama has been a one party state.

Things have changed in recent years and the trend continues to be in the direction of a two party state.

This is not to suggest that philosophically members who serve in the Alabama Senate have "changed their stripes".

Indeed, it may be just the opposite.

Many are conservative Democrats as well as conservative Republicans and many are moderates and some are what we generally refer to as liberals.

None of this has changed with the person, but we have all been obliged to select and run under a party symbol.

I do not see this changing any time soon.

In its haste to settle a very difficult situation at the beginning of this quadrennium, the Senate adopted several organizational measures which need to be "revisited" in order to make the Senate a more efficient, independent body.

I would, however, be quick to say that some of the rules which were adopted have been very good and have brought some formal organizational structure to the body which was absent in the past.

My general philosophy about the organization of the State Senate is that the members of the body should govern the Senate, which includes establishing an organizational structure that promotes an orderly method of conducting business, and showing fairness to all members.

I am going to outline some of the reorganizational recommendations which I feel would strengthen these objectives.

My first suggestion would be to enact meaningful campaign reform.

The amount of money given to a candidate as a political contribution should be limited to a reasonable sum and the amount the candidate can spend in getting elected should likewise be limited.

No legislative body should be "beholden" to special interests groups.

This step could prove to be helpful.

Secondly, I think the Senate would be better served with the implementation of a seniority system with respect to committee structure.

Under my proposal, the committee chairs would be assigned their duties on the basis of seniority within the respective Democratic and Republican caucuses, subject to the final approval of the Senate leadership.

By using a seniority system, one is assured that the most experienced and knowledgeable senators carry the responsibility of the committee work and the daily calendar of the senate.

The United States Senate is organized in this manner and it is my observation that it has worked well in that body.

In selecting committee members, the appointing authority, in my opinion, should consider the following criteria: preference of the member being considered, competency or talent of the legislator, political party, tenure on the committee, occupation, geographic location of the member's district within the state, ethnicity and gender.

This would result in a much fairer assignment of members to committees.

Presently I see little or no correlation between a member and his or her respective committee assignments.

My next suggestion would be to give specific responsibilities to the president of the senate, president pro-tem of the senate, the majority and minority leaders, and the majority and minority whips.

It is not practical in this column to outline these suggested responsibilities, but the assignment of specific functions to the leadership positions would enhance the ability of the Senate to operate efficiently and effectively.

A final suggestion I have is that the Senate establish and publish a calendar outlining the bills and issues which will be considered during the course of a given week.

If a vote is so urgent and is not known in advance, then by unanimous consent the body could vary the published calendar.

I just personally see no need or necessity for "surprises" in the presentation of the business of the Senate.

Some of my peers feel that the office of Lieutenant Governor should not include duties as presiding officer of the Senate and there are other of my peers who feel that if the lieutenant governor is to preside as president of the senate, then both he or she and the governor should be of the same party.

I am undecided on these points and would like to hear how you feel.

Until next time, remember, "I'll go with you or I'll go for you" to help you solve any problem related to state government.