Let’s define ‘double-dipping’

Alabama Scene

Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent. E-mail him at: bob@montgomeryindependent.com

Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent. E-mail him at: bob@montgomeryindependent.com

Gov. Riley wants to ban double-dipping by legislators, a practice which I understand he defines as one person receiving more than one monetary benefit from the state.

But would his definition of the term, for example, prohibit a state retiree from serving in the House or Senate and drawing legislative pay or expenses?

Would it prohibit a retired or active member of the Alabama National Guard from drawing duty pay or a pension while receiving compensation as a lawmaker?

Would it include a state employee or teacher who is elected to the Legislature and does not take the $10-per-day salary for legislative meeting days but accepts the much higher legislative expense allowance?

Would Riley’s definition exclude members of part-time state boards who draw small salaries or per diem expenses?

Would it include persons married to state and education employees covered by state health benefits who also receive those benefits through spousal coverage? Such a provision would likely affect new state Sen. Brian Taylor of Prattville, a major proponent of a doubledipping law. His wife is a highly-paid state employee on the governor’s staff who presumably has state health and retirement benefits.

How about education or other employees who are paid by local government but are a part of the state retirement systems and draw state checks when they retire?

It should be an obvious conclusion that a blanket exclusion from drawing state pay for service other than in the legislature would prohibit thousands of Alabamians from offering themselves as potential lawmakers.

Such a law, I believe, could violate the “equal protection” language in both our federal and state constitutions unless drafted very carefully.

However, I have offered a simple and legally sound solution to this problem many times: Make legislative service a fulltime job, like Congress; set a reasonable salary and benefits package and prohibit members from earning income from any other position; require them to place any investments in a blind trust and forbid their families from being offered or paid any compensation by the state or any lobbyist or person with any interest in legislation, potential legislation, or state business. Criminal penalties should be enacted for violations of these prohibitions. The same requirements should be made of the governor and lieutenant governor and other state elected officials.

I realize that nothing even similar to this proposal will be offered in my lifetime, but it should be proposed and perhaps some governor in the future will seek election on such a platform and have the fortitude to move such a plan forward.

Most capitol observers think Riley will call a special session to address some form of ethics legislation before he leaves office. It is expected that providing subpoena power to the state Ethics Commission and requiring more disclosure of lobbyist spending on public officials will be a part of the proposal.

I am told, however, that Riley and some Republican lawmakers want to see double dipping on the agenda, something which could cause some concern for Governor- Elect Robert Bentley who doesn’t appear to be totally signed on to the Riley agenda.

Bentley has voiced public concern about prohibiting anyone “elected by the people back home,” from serving in the Legislature.

Political insiders at the capitol believe that Bentley’s support in his quest for governor by the powerful Alabama Education Association and its leader, Dr. Paul Hubbert, could be one reason he may be cool to the doubledipping proposal.

Another could be his belief that Riley and his forces tried to defeat him in the Republican primary. It is well-known that the Riley forces virtually ran and financed the campaign of Bentley’s runoff opponent, Bradley Byrne.

Also, it is expected that if ethics legislation is proposed by Riley, amendments will be offered to include a proposal that would forbid a governor or any cabinet officer or department head in the government from hiring law firms, consultants or any other business at which the governor’s or the cabinet official’s immediate family is employed.

Legislators and lawyers with whom I have talked cite upwards of $9 million in legal fees Riley has funneled to the Bradley Arant firm in Birmingham where his son-in-law is a shareholder. Also cited are payments of several million by Jefferson County to the law firm of his son, Rob Riley, following assistance involving the county’s debt problems provided by the governor.