The state Senate, apparently not impressed with public disgust over past legislative tricks, pulled another fast one Wednesday.
At issue was a bill that would require welfare recipients to pass drug screens as a prerequisite to receiving assistance. The bill was on the agenda for 2 p.m. and senators with concerns about the bill had said they wanted to discuss it before a vote.
There was good reason to question the bill, which mimics similar legislation passed in Florida in 2011. Copycat bills sometimes make sense; if something worked in one state, it might work in Alabama.
The Florida bill, however, was an utter failure. Of the more than 4,000 Floridians who underwent drug tests, only 108 — 2.8 percent — failed. Eight percent of all Floridians use drugs. The law caused no decrease in applications for assistance. The law was in effect for only four months, but the net cost to the state — despite the slight decrease in benefits it paid out — was $46,000.
The reason the Florida experiment lasted only four months was that a federal district court ruled it was unconstitutional. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals — the same court that hears challenges to Alabama laws — agreed in a February ruling.
The Florida law, designed to save money, instead increased costs. It also led to an expensive court battle that Florida lost. Yet the Alabama Senate decided to copy the Florida experiment.
There was good reason, therefore, that senators requested a chance to discuss Senate Bill 191 before a vote. Unfortunately, there were several committee meetings immediately before the full Senate came to session at 2 p.m. One of those committee meetings was to discuss a proposed replacement bill for the Alabama Accountability Act.
The reason Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, proposed a replacement bill for the Accountability Act relates back to another legislative game. Marsh and a few others substituted a 28-page “school choice” bill for a nine-page flexibility bill during a conference committee. They intentionally concealed the existence of the substitute bill from the state superintendent, from the public, from Democratic lawmakers and even from most Republicans. To their glee the bill passed, but to no one’s surprise it is a terribly drafted law. It’s what one would expect when legislators try to reform education policy without input from educators.
At 2 p.m. on Wednesday, therefore, senators were just leaving contentious committee meetings. Almost no senators were in the chamber, according to a reporter who was, yet Marsh called for a vote on the drug-testing bill. He asked to have it passed using the roll call from a previously passed and unrelated bill. No one objected because no Democrats and almost no senators were present. The bill automatically passed in the nearly empty chamber, and Marsh exchanged a high five with the bill’s sponsor as confused senators strolled in.
These sorts of “gotcha” games would be embarrassing if played by student council representatives in an elementary school. They are an insult to Alabama voters. And they result in lousy laws.
Addendum: Derek Trotter, Marsh’s communications director, contacted me regarding this post. He said Marsh offered to reconsider the bill, which “would have negated the passage and essentially reset the debate.” Trotter said he did not know to whom the offer was made or who declined it, “but Senator Rodger Smitherman (D-Birmingham) was the one who encouraged his side to not reconsider and keep things moving.”