Archived Story

Broken legislature makes mess of gift giving

Published 9:59am Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Lawmaking is supposed to be a deliberative process.
The legislative system is designed to foster careful consideration. There are two separate chambers of the Legislature where each bill must pass. There are hearings in committees where citizens can comment. There are amendments to fix problems.
Most importantly, there is debate on each bill before a vote is taken. The back and forth of honest engaged debate is important to expose problems and correct them before a bill becomes law. Floor debate is often the only time when common sense gets introduced in the statehouse.
Yet, for many bills passed by the new legislative majority, deliberation was cast aside. In the last year, there were more votes to forcibly end debate than in the past twenty. Ramming bills through was the mode of operation for leaders in the House and Senate.
Now many Alabamians are feeling the ill effects.
This Christmas season, teachers are hurt by the lack of common sense in the new ethics law. Legislative leaders had already slashed their pay, cut funds for school supplies, provided no new textbooks, and made hundreds of teachers retire mid-year. Adding insult to injury, now teachers cannot accept Christmas gifts from their students.
That’s right, if little Johnny or Jane comes to class this month bearing a gift certificate to a store for classroom supplies, or even a holiday ham or turkey, they will be breaking the new state ethics law. Those who break the law could be charged with a misdemeanor, and sentenced to up to a year in jail and be fined up to $6,000.
Jim Sumner, director of the Alabama Ethics Commission said students may still bake cookies, or bring in something consumable such as a candle or a potted plant, but the days of teachers being given a $25 gift card to Target or Walmart are a thing of the past.
If it seems ridiculous to make giving gifts to teachers illegal, that’s because it is.
The nonprofit Center for Ethics in Government, a national expert in state ethics laws, said they weren’t aware of any other state that banned gifts to classroom teachers. It would seem that Alabama stands alone in criminalizing the good wishes of a family toward their child’s teacher.
It didn’t used to be this way. The old state ethics law exempted seasonal gifts, as long as they were less than $100. Rarely if ever did a child’s gift approach that figure, yet many families did give something so a teacher could restock her classroom.
Now, it is illegal.
The state ethics laws needed to be changed. For far too long lobbyists and others lavished gifts on legislators and other decision makers in state government. There needed to be tighter controls. Yet, in their haste, the majority didn’t allow the normal deliberative process to fix what is obviously a ridiculous outcome of banning small gifts to teachers. Floor debate was killed, amendments were not considered, and the majority passed what leaders wanted without thought.
What’s worse, there are still loopholes in the new ethics law that allow lobbyist to purchase meals and trips for legislators, as long as they are deemed “educational.”
We have seen a steady stream of lawsuits, court actions, and controversy over laws passed in a slipshod and hurried manner. Problems will continue to grow as other new laws come into effect, laws with flaws that could have been caught had careful consideration been used.

Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County. His column appears each Wednesday.

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