Brown column for Feb. 29

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 4, 2004

My travels often take me through a small community where a small restaurant building stands beside the highway. It has had a variety of occupants over the years, but none of them has lasted very long.

Out front stands a marquee sign. It says “Open Soon.” The sign has carried that message for many months now.

If there were a “Reform Soon” sign on Goat Hill in Montgomery, the letters would be falling off it, too.

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Gov. Bob Riley says that the overwhelming defeat of his tax and reform package last year sent him the message loud and clear that the voters want reform (accountability is the buzzword, although defining it can be tricky) before they will accept tax increases.

Legislators – who last year passed ill-fated Riley’s package and sent it on to the voters – don’t seem to have heard the message in the same way. In fact, some lawmakers question Riley’s single-minded zeal for government reform.

House majority leader Ken Guin, D-Carbon Hill, was quoted in a newspaper last week as saying he doesn’t think the administration is serious about reform.

“I’m convinced that they are not sincere about accountability,” he said. “They are just wanting to distract the public from the real issues in this state.”

The Legislature turned down Riley’s bid to have reform legislation considered in a special session. Legislators said they would give the governor’s bills serious consideration during the regular session.

Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, was quoted as saying the governor wanted to call a special session on reform legislation just so he could bash the Legislature. “Making someone else look worse in hopes of looking better is a well-worn political approach.”

I’m not sure the governor could make the Legislature look worse than it already does.

The reception of the governor’s package could hardly be called warm.

Some legislators complain that Riley hasn’t done enough lobbying for his bills, and it probably wouldn’t hurt for him to do a little more handshaking and backslapping with the folks over at the State House, but would it really do any good?

Riley, for instance, has proposed making lobbyists account for all of the money they spend seeking to influence state government.

Some legislators argued against the bill, presumably with a straight face, because it did not cover salesmen who entertain officials in the executive branch in hopes of selling their products.

“Sales people meet with the executive offices all the time. They wine and dine them and take them to play golf,” Rep. Neal Morrison, D-Cullman, is quoted as saying.

Isn’t that the kind of “all the other kids are doing it” argument that you would reject from your teen-ager?

On another front, House members did agree to bar the transfer of money from one Political Action Committee to another. PAC to PAC transfers are a handy way of hiding the source of campaign contributions, for example. The House left a gaping loophole in the bill, though. The legislation exempts contributions from any political action committee to a caucus of the Legislature. If the bill becomes law, it would close off one way of hiding money and open another.

The governor’s proposal to limit legislators to 12 years in office also is going nowhere.

And so reform has gone.

Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, who is the Senate president pro tem, is another who has questioned the governor’s sincerity. He was quoted as saying, “I think he set up the accountability package to fail so that he can say that the Legislature killed his program and, therefore, he could blame it on the Democrats.”

If that is the case, Democrats appeared to be falling into the trap. Riley’s bills may not be perfect, but instead of improving on them, legislators have been either killing them outright or stalling them. It has hardly made them appear to be champions of good government.

It appears that some of them have figured that out. Democratic leaders have formed a bipartisan committee of legislators to seek a compromise on accountability bills and possibly tax increases.

Perhaps the Legislature will pass some real reforms.

Perhaps that vacant restaurant I pass will reopen.

I just wouldn’t bet the farm on either prospect.

Bill Brown can be contacted at 377 Quail Hollow Drive, Dadeville AL 36853 or by e-mail at

(c)2004 William B. Brown