Alabama Scene

Ethics on a dare

Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent E-mail: bob@montgomery

Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent E-mail: bob@montgomery

Gov. Riley is right to push for additional teeth in our state’s ethics law including separate legislation that has been introduced to make improvements and give the state Ethics Commission subpoena power.

The current ethics law was passed in 1973 on the final night of the regular session. It was passed on a dare. The Senate passed the bill creating the commission and sent it to the House on that final day. Most senators who voted for the legislation believed it would never pass the House and that they would have it both ways – credit for a vote for ethics in the Senate, but also getting their real wish that the measure would die in the House.

During late night debate on the bill, the late Rep. Rankin Fite of Hamilton, a legendary former house speaker who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, rose to oppose the legislation. In a somewhat stammering voice reflecting the onset of his illness, Fite stood at the floor microphone and told his colleagues: “I rise here tonight to oppose this legislation – It’s just not strong enough.”

For reasons perhaps not perceived by Rep. Fite on that evening in 1973, he spoke prophetic words. While the creation of the commission has provided some ethics oversight in the state, the failure of future legislatures to adequately fund the commission and the failure to give the commission subpoena power has rendered it impotent to fully address the many unethical acts committed in Alabama politics.

However, State Rep. Bob Hill Jr. of Florence, who was the House sponsor of the legislation, along with a majority of his colleagues, called the Senate’s bluff and passed the bill to the chagrin of many senators and House members.

It is now time for the governor, who has been good at calling for legislation but short on getting it enacted into law, to use his influence to at least get legislation adopted to grant the commission the power of the subpoena. However, don’t bet the farm that it will happen. His proposed ethics law rewrite has already been lampooned by House Majority Leader Ken Guin, D-Carbon Hill, who called Riley “absolutely the slickest politician we’ve seen in years” for his advocacy of ethics reform. “Two years ago, we passed tough ethics reform laws and the governor vetoed them, and we ought to start out from that point,” Guin said. The law to which Guin referred would have placed additional ethics regulations on employees of the executive branch.

So with this opening and the disaster lawmakers will face dealing with diminished revenues and state budget needs, the boys and girls of the Legislature are back in Montgomery and in combination with the governor’s lackeys and the bureaucrats, we know the season to look out for our wallets has returned.

Davis announces his bid for governor

Congressman Artur Davis of Birmingham made it official last week, saying he’s in the race for governor in 2010. Davis understands it will be an uphill battle but has made what I believe is an ill-advised decision to leave a powerful position at the federal level where he would have a great opportunity to benefit his state in order to roll the dice in uncharted waters.

Rep. Davis is smart, dedicated, charismatic and a genuinely nice guy, but Alabama is not the U. S. of A. where President Obama got 43 percent of the white vote. While the number of African Americans is a significant percentage of the Democratic vote in Alabama, the 2010 primary will have all local offices on the ballot statewide and that will be a significant stumbling block to Rep. Davis’s candidacy.

It also appears that Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. plans to enter the race and if so, he will siphon off a considerable chunk of the African American vote that under different circumstances would likely go to Davis, Folsom will likely get the endorsement or a coendorsement of at least one of the major black political organizations in the state.

But nothing has yet deterred Davis, who grew up in Montgomery, and he acknowledges it will be tough. “There was a time when what I am about to try to do seemed as inconceivable as the idea of a Kenyan and a Kansan with Confederate roots joining to give birth to an American president,” he told a crowd of 150 at his announcement in Birmingham last week.

I’m afraid it still is, Congressman.