Tackle Alabama’s political corruption by moving state legislature
That’s precisely why the Alabama Legislature should meet in Birmingham.
No, we don’t need to move the state capital. Move the location where the legislative branch meets.
Take a drive to Montgomery when the legislature is in session. Lobbyists and state agency brass line the hallways waiting to bend the ear of passing legislators. Lobbyists and bureaucrats are easy to find in any legislative body in America. The difference in Montgomery is that they enjoy almost exclusive access to the legislative branch.
Alabama citizens usually visit Montgomery for two reasons: School field trips and coordinated legislative days dedicated to a specific policy issue. Otherwise, it’s a government town far “swampier” than even our nation’s capital.
Moving the legislature’s annual session to Birmingham has a few real advantages.
While the City of Birmingham is only slightly larger than Montgomery, the Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan area is almost four times as large as metropolitan Montgomery. It accounts for about a quarter of Alabama’s population. Forcing the legislature to meet in Birmingham translates to more media access, easier public participation, and a physical separation between the legislative and executive branches of Alabama’s state government.
When it comes to media covering the Alabama Legislature, a handful of statehouse reporters provide the bulk of information about the legislative session. To put it mildly, shining a spotlight on the Alabama Legislature isn’t easy. So much happens by handshake and word of mouth that isn’t tracked on the Alabama Legislative Information System Online (ALISON). The number of reporters, writers and watchdogs based in the Birmingham area would significantly increase accountability for legislators who clearly don’t seem worried about public scrutiny in Montgomery.
Even in Birmingham, companies, unions and special interests would continue to lobby the legislature. In fairness, they play an important role in educating a legislature that doesn’t have much in the way of staff support. Those groups simply wouldn’t have a monopoly on legislative attention like they do in Montgomery.
Hopefully, the move would mean more citizens participating in the legislative process. For Huntsville, Mobile and even Birmingham, the drive to Montgomery isn’t convenient. That’s an obvious deterrent to participation. The legislature should meet as close to the bulk of the state’s population as possible, and Birmingham fits that description. When legislators know constituents are paying closer attention, they’ll be less inclined to dance along ethical lines.
There’s also something to be said for putting a little distance between state agencies and the legislature. If there’s one group that gives lobbyists a run for their influence in Montgomery, it’s the state agencies and institutions.
State entities even managed to mask their lobbying activities in the 2010 ethics reforms heralded by Republicans. An amendment offered by former Rep. Greg Wren (R-Montgomery) removed agency heads and their designees from the definition of “lobbyist.” While state lobbyists shouldn’t simply shift state funds by paying the registration fee, the act of registering should be a no-brainer. Alabamians should know how much taxpayer money agencies spend in the effort to secure more taxpayer money. Physically separating many state entities from the legislature is clearly in the average Alabamian’s interest.
To reiterate, this idea isn’t the same as moving the state capital. No state has moved its capital since Hawaii and Alaska became states in 1959. Transplanting executive branch infrastructure would be incredibly disruptive and expensive. It would also represent a serious and unexpected economic hardship for Montgomery.
Those concerns don’t really apply if we simply move the Alabama Legislature. Legislators meet part time, have a relatively small support staff, and don’t need much space to conduct their business. It’s certainly an unorthodox solution, but Alabama desperately needs to upend the entrenched culture of corruption. We’re going to need a lot more than political promises if that’s going to become reality.