Weathering another crisis

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 13, 2006

I was standing at the podium in the well of the Alabama Senate.

I struggled to keep my voice “low and slow” as Senate President Pro Tem Lowell Barron had often advised.

Still I felt my voice rising as the rhythm of words moved faster and faster.

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It was another legislative moment coming to a head.

“We are not going to pass anymore bills,” I said.

“If you run over me, you will have to run over me on every single thing for the rest of this session!”

I was at one podium and Sen. Jim Preuitt was at the other.

I was extremely upset.

I was equally determined.

The Alabama House of Representative passed the new community service grants bill on Jan. 19 by a vote of 74 to 24.

Even this 3-to-1 vote did not indicate the overwhelming support this bill enjoyed.

In truth, it was something that virtually every House and Senate member badly wanted.

Community service grants give every legislator something concrete to take home.

More importantly, they do a lot of good in our education community.

Last year, I had nearly 2,000 requests for the limited mini-grants I can recommend.

When the bill arrived in the Senate on Jan. 24, we expected it to fly through the Senate as it had in the House.

I was so wrong!

The chair of the Senate Rules Committee, Sen. Preuitt, and his cohort, Sen. Gerald Dial, refused to bring the bill to the Senate floor unless they had their way.

They wanted to replace Democrat Ron Sparks with Republican Kay Ivey on the Community Service Grants Committee as well as remove all capacity to make recommendations about any portion of the funds.

I had been patient from Jan. 24 to April 5.

So had other senators.

Preuitt and Dial claimed they had 19 votes, a majority of the Senate that would vote with them.

I believed we had 19 votes.

I said over and over, “Bring it to the floor, and we will live by the vote.”

Preuitt and Dial continued to hold the bill hostage.

Time-delaying negotiations had been going on for weeks.

Now we were down to the last three days of the session.

As far as the community service grants bill was concerned, we were down to the next-to-the-last day because there would be no opportunity to override a certain veto from Gov. Bob Riley if the legislative session was over.

I was standing at the podium struggling to be calm because Sen. Preuitt had just presented a seven page agenda, which we call a Rules Committee Report.

It contained some 37 bills.

This agenda would allow them to pass all the bills their folks wanted while using up most of the remaining time.

I could not allow that to happen.

That’s why I stopped everything.

I was very surprised when Sen. Preuitt quickly withdrew the proposed agenda and agreed for the Senate to recess for an hour so we could negotiate in earnest.

Their team consisted of Preuitt, Democrat Tom Butler and Republicans Dale Marsh and Bradley Byrne.

Our team included me and Democrats Quinton Ross and Roger Bedford.

We negotiated well beyond an hour. The Senate returned after the recess and adjourned for the night as we continued to negotiate.

I thought we had made real progress by the time we recessed for the night.

When negotiations resumed the next day, all progress vanished as Preuitt’s team returned to their original positions.

Negotiations eventually broke down.

We continued to hold up all legislation except for local bills, which can cause legislators real heartburn.

As the pressure built, negotiations commenced through the “side door” with Sen. Quinton Ross playing an important center stage role.

Sen. Jimmy Holley was also actively engaged in the process.

Sen. Ross went back and forth between me and those on the other side.

A few tried to extend negotiations into the next day, the very last day.

I said, “No way!

We must conclude this tonight!”

Preuitt’s coalition of Republicans and Democrats appeared to fray beyond the edges when Preuitt wanted to settle but his Republican allies did not.

Eventually a compromise was worked out by keeping Agriculture&Industries Commissioner Ron Sparks but adding State Treasurer Kay Ivey.

The discretionary portion of Community Service Grants was not changed although the recommendations process for some funds will be expanded.

We passed the Community Service Grants bill by a vote of 28-to-5.

The blockage of legislation ceased.

Free movement of bills and other legislation resumed.

Another crisis was weathered