Deal Ends Political Row That Tied Alabama Senate in Knots

By: - April 6, 1999 12:00 am

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The infamous jug is emptied and gone.

The National Guard can rest easy, and apparently so, too, can Alabama’s constitutional experts.

The Alabama state senate is coming back to town, vowing this time to work, not bicker.

Alabama’s 35 senators will return from an abbreviated spring break today (Tuesday), a week after settling the rancorous rules dispute that paralyzed them for the first month of the regular session.

The dispute pitted 18 allies of Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman against Republican Lt. Gov. Steve Windom and 17 conservative senators. It boiled over for the final time March 28, when the majority coalition threatened to impeach Windom and the lieutenant governor, afraid to leave his seat for fear his foes would act in his absence, urinated in a jug underneath his desk.

A day later, shortly before 4 a.m., the senators endorsed a peace deal that leaves Windom with less power than his predecessors but gives his allies parity on Senate budget committees and near-parity on others.

“These have been trying times,” Windom told the Senate when the deal was nearly done.The dispute largely revolved around Windom’s role in the chamber. The lieutenant governor’s only major constitutional responsibility is to preside over the state senate, but over the years, senators have allowed the lieutenant governor to distribute committeeseats, assign bills and write Senate rules — giving them near life-and-death power over controversial legislation.

The beneficiaries included Siegelman, the lieutenant governor for the last four years.

Windom, however, is Alabama’s first Republican lieutenant governor in this century and, after winning November’s election, shared a party affiliation with only 12 of the 35 senators.

Saying he did not trust Windom to give his initiatives a fair hearing, Siegelman almost immediately began courting the 23 Democrats.

And, during the state senate’s organizational session on Jan. 12, with Siegelman still presiding the week before his inauguration as governor, 18 Democrats voted to transfer the lieutenant governor’s traditional authority to Speaker Pro Tem Lowell Barron and to keep nearly all of the key committee seats for themselves. Windom watched from the rear of the chamber, powerless to stop them.

But the Republican struck back March 2, the opening day of the regular session. After an ally introduced a new set of rules restoring his powers, Windom declared them adopted on a unanimous voice vote, despite the deafening protests of the 18 Democrats, who threatened to impeach him and to call out the National Guard.

The furious Democrats began a boycott, denying the state senate a quorum for eight days, and took Windom to court, where a Democratic state judge tossed out the March 2 changes, ruling that the lieutenant governor had violated the state Constitution by refusing to allow a roll-call vote.

The state Supreme Court suspended that order while it considered Windom’s appeal. The court never ruled.

The 18 Democrats returned to the Senate March 11, but the meeting almost immediately dissolved into chaos. As Barron talked of forcibly removing Windom from his chair, state senate staff summoned extra security into the chamber, and longtime state senate Secretary McDowell Lee walked out in disgust.

The two sides agreed to take a week off and to ask former Democratic Gov. Albert Brewer and former Republican state Sen. Butch Ellis to broker their talks.

The mediators began by shuttling between negotiating teams, then convened all 35 senators for a closed-door meeting from which the media was excluded, then returned to back-and-forth diplomacy. After more than a week of effort, they left in frustration.

Siegelman immediately called the senators into a special session, saying he wanted the dispute settled before legislators’ scheduled spring break ended.

Today’s meeting will be the 12th of the 30 meeting days alloted for the session. The state senate has not considered a single bill, including Siegelman’s proposal for a state lottery, which the house has already endorsed.

Just when an effort to break the impasse appeared doomed, the state senators struck their settlement.

“The public is getting tired of this, very tired,” state senator Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, said as the deal drew near, explaining the sudden progress. “The public is not distinguishing between us. We are all a (state) senate in their eyes, and we are grown men who are acting like children.”

Under the compromise, Windom and Barron will share the responsibility of assigning legislation. The majority coalition will hold the chairmanships of the major committees, with Windom’s allies in the No. 2 positions.

The two sides will get an equal number of seats on the two budget committees, and the majority will have a one-seat margin on the others. The majority will also have two of the three Senate seats on the conference committees that reconcile the House and Senate budgets.

For the first time, 21 senators will be able to recall a bill from a committee that refuses to act on it. Windom and his allies believe the option increases the chances of passing tort reform legislation.

“I think it was as fair as you can get it,” Sen. Tommy Ed Roberts, D-Hartselle, a Windom ally, said of the final deal.

When they return, state senators may have an opportunity to prevent a repeat of the dispute.

A state representative, Republican Jim Haney of Huntsville, has introduced legislation to require the governor and lieutenant governor to run as a ticket in the future, guaranteeing that they will be from the same party.

And a Republican state senator has proposed delaying the Senate’s organizational session until after the governor’s inauguration from now on so that no future governor has the same opportunity that Siegelman had. 

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