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Orr, Butler criticize changes in rules, defend slow-down

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com 340-2435

Alabama voters are suffering the pain from punitive rule changes in the state Senate, according to area senators, and it's time to change the rules back.

Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and Tom Butler, D-Madison, stumped for public support at The Daily on Tuesday, saying rule changes by a Senate majority, orchestrated by Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, are disenfranchising Alabama voters.

"This is not about power," said Orr. "It's about openness in government."

Butler agreed.

"They're going to use these rules to retaliate and punish the community," he said. "The voters' voices will be stifled. It's about having fair representation."

Also on Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tem Hinton Mitchem formed an ad hoc committee to study rule changes proposed by Orr, Butler and 15 other senators in a minority coalition seeking to carve out political viability in the Senate.

The minority coalition senators have several complaints about Senate rules. Butler and Orr said they were most concerned about three.

  • Prior to January, any six senators could force all votes in a legislative day to be by roll call.

    Orr and Butler want that rule reinstated. Its absence permitted a recent voice vote approving a pay hike for senators.

    "It allows the majority on voice vote to just not see us," said Orr. "By having a roll call vote, it brings accountability."

    Orr said he and several other senators opposed the pay hike in a voice vote, but were not recognized.

    "In January, there were murmurings (of a pay-hike vote)," Orr recalled. "They said, 'Just keep your seat and murmur "no." Others will say "aye." You can tell your constituents you voted against it.' "

  • Before January, debate on an issue only could be cut off upon approval of 21 (three-fifths) of the senators. A rule change permits 18 senators (a simple majority) to limit debate if the issue pertains to a rule involving the Education Trust Fund Budget, the General Fund Budget or reapportionment.

    "They can put a petition into the chair to limit debate to 30 minutes," Butler said. "They can speak for 30 minutes, and not one other person can speak or ask questions."

  • The current rule requires a committee chairman to, "whenever possible," provide members an agenda with a synopsis of any bills under consideration at least four hours before the committee meeting.

    Orr wants to require chairmen to give 24-hour advance notice.

    "Under the current rule, it's legislation by surprise," Orr said.

    "You get an agenda an hour before the meeting. Sometimes you get the bill for the first time at the meeting."

    Orr said many such bills are lengthy and have complex ramifications.

    Butler defended a deliberate slow-down in Senate activity by the 17-member minority.

    Twelve Republicans and five Democrats have blocked passage of several bills by voting against the Budget Isolation Resolution before the bills.

    "I think you'll see the 17 take more time to look at each issue," Butler said. "The slow-down is an attempt to right a wrong, to get (the majority to) come to the table and review them one by one."

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