The comeback bill: Anniston alcohol sales bill defies custom on path to House floor
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Apr 03, 2013 | 6966 views |  0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Thirty-four draft beers are on tap at Heroes Grille near Weaver. With the passage of a recent bill Heroes and another business could be annexed into Weaver allowing them to sell alcohol on Sundays.  (Anniston Star photo by Trent Penny)
Thirty-four draft beers are on tap at Heroes Grille near Weaver. With the passage of a recent bill Heroes and another business could be annexed into Weaver allowing them to sell alcohol on Sundays. (Anniston Star photo by Trent Penny)
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MONTGOMERY — A bill that would open the door to Sunday alcohol sales in Anniston is scheduled for a vote on the floor of the Alabama House of Representatives today, but it would take a legislative miracle to make that vote actually happen.

With tensions high between the two parties, and some Democrats pledging to block all local bills in protest of perceived slights by Republicans, the Anniston bill is likely to linger in limbo.

"Until this is resolved, the local bills just sit there," said Jeff Woodard, the clerk of the House.

Still, lawmakers are learning that they can't quickly write off the Anniston Ecotourism Beverage Bill, a local bill which so far has defied conventional wisdom — and long-standing parliamentary custom — in its path through the Legislature.

The Anniston City Council asked lawmakers earlier this year for a bill that would give the council the power to open up alcohol sales on Sundays. City leaders said they wanted the option of Sunday sales to make the city more attractive to tourists. Anniston hosts a number of prominent bicycle races and running events, and city leaders are hoping to market the Model City as an ecotourism destination.

Their bill passed quickly through the Senate, where an Anniston lawmaker, Sen. Del Marsh is president pro tempore, presiding over a Republican supermajority. But the measure seemed doomed from the start in the House, where two of Calhoun County's four representatives opposed the bill.

Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, cited religious reasons for not wanting to expand liquor sales on Sunday. He also said that his district includes Oxford, Anniston's neighbor, and said Oxford residents didn't want Sunday sales in Anniston. Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks, opposed the bill on the grounds that Anniston's economy shouldn't be built on alcohol sales.

That left the local delegation in a tie. Anniston Democrat Rep. Barbara Boyd supported the bill, and Jacksonville Republican Rep. Koven L. Brown, unsure of the bill at first, eventually came down as a yes vote.

Normally just one opposing legislator can kill a bill before it reaches the House floor. Woodard, the House clerk, said that for counties with fewer than five representatives, House rules say that every one of the delegates must sign the bill before it can be approved by committee.

But on Tuesday, in a five-minute meeting, the House's Local Legislation Committee met and approved the bill — twice. Two nearly identical versions of the Ecotourism Beverage Bill, one from the House and another from the Senate, passed out of the committee 7-0.

Woodard said the move was possible because of a House rule that allows a bill to pass without the local delegation’s unanimous approval if the chairman of the Local Legislation Committee convenes the full committee expressly to vote on the bill. He said that rule is invoked at least a few times in every Legislative session.

Even if it complied with the House’s written rules, the move was a departure from legislative custom, longtime watchers of the State House say.

"If you're telling me it's two-and-two, and they approved it anyway, I'm really surprised by that," said Jess Brown, a former Goat Hill lobbyist who now teaches public affairs at Athens State University.

Brown, who lobbied for the city of Huntsville and later the University of Alabama, said a longstanding custom known as "local courtesy" governs the passage of any bill that affects just one local area.

Local courtesy dictates that lawmakers vote for any local bill -- even if it’s not in their district -- as long as it gets the approval of the legislators in the county affected by the bill.

But to cast that vote, lawmakers expect a unanimous or near-unanimous vote from the local delegation. In large delegations such as Jefferson County’s, he said, a large majority is needed. In smaller counties, support usually must be unanimous.

“The idea is that I’m showing deference to the local delegation,” he said. That’s why local bills almost never pass out of committee with a tied local vote.

“In a tie, who do I show deference to?” he said. “The 50 percent that’s for it or the 50 percent that’s against it?”

Brown said local courtesy is a tradition, written or unwritten, in many state legislatures.

“The norm of local courtesy is mentioned in textbooks,” he said. “It isn’t just an Alabama phenomenon.”

Political scientist William Stewart said the custom may be showing some wear and tear. The concept made more sense, he said, when the Constitution of 1901 was first written -- with a rule that districts should conform as closely as possible to the boundaries of counties. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act, he said, lawmakers found they couldn’t draw districts with the court-approved racial composition without straddling county lines.

“What if you have someone who can block Tuscaloosa County legislation, but he lives in Jasper?” said Stewart, a professor emeritus in the political science department of the University of Alabama. “That weakens the custom of legislative courtesy.”

That example may have an analogy in the Anniston situation. Hurst, the first lawmaker to come out against the bill, represents some Calhoun County portions of Oxford, but his district is mostly in Talladega County. Boyd, who represents most of Anniston, supported the bill from the beginning. And the city’s representative in the Senate, Marsh, just happened to be a leader in the Legislature.

“I think having a leader of local origins in such a powerful position helps,” Stewart said.

Others in the Senate also speculated that Marsh had intervened in the matter. Marsh told The Star on Tuesday that he had indeed contacted committee chair Rep. Greg Wren, R-Montgomery, to persuade him to pass the bill through committee.

As president pro tem, Marsh doesn’t necessarily have a stick to threaten House members with, but he has lots of carrots.

“He’s in a position to say, do me this favor, and I can do you a favor later,” Stewart said.

Passage of the bill by the full House may require more favors than the Republican supermajority is willing to give. Earlier this month, House minority leader Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, pledged to contest all local bills in protest against the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act, a school tax-credit bill largely rewritten by Marsh. Later, Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay, said he too would contest local bills, in response to the Legislature’s failure to reverse a veto on a local bill he proposed.

Morrow’s block effectively keeps any local bill from reaching discussion on the House floor.

Morrow held a press conference Tuesday to announce that he’d re-introduced that bill, which allows for school employees to be trained as armed security. Asked on Tuesday whether he’d relent on the local bill block while shepherding his bill through the House, Morrow said he didn’t think so.

“I’ll tell you when I have an act number,” he said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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