Alabama lawmakers to resume session in mostly closed State House




The legislative article of Alabama’s 1901 Constitution says “The doors of each house shall be opened,“ but Alabama lawmakers will return to work Monday in a State House that’s mostly closed to the public.

Legislative officials said it would be almost impossible to follow social distancing rules while allowing the usual access for lobbyists, advocacy groups, and the general public.

The legislative session has been on hold since March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The restart will come with safeguards like moving some lawmakers to a balcony normally used by spectators and wearing masks.

House Clerk Jeff Woodard and Senate Secretary Pat Harris said technology upgrades, with help from Alabama Public Television, will help people follow the proceedings without being inside the State House.

The House plans to offer live stream video from the House chamber over the Legislature’s website, ALISON. Previously, the House has offered only audio. The Senate will continue to offer live stream video on ALISON.

ALISON and the Alabama Public TV website plan to live stream video of committee meetings in the two main meeting rooms.

“We’re taking every step we possibly can to make sure people have access in some form or fashion,” Woodard said.

The press will be allowed but some will be in different locations than normal because of the need to spread legislators out.

The main business for legislators is to pass the education and General Fund budgets for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. The session must end by May 18.

Some legislators, including House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels and Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, have said it was too soon to restart the session because of uncertainties over how the pandemic will affect state finances and the risk of spreading infection to members and staff.

Republican leaders said it’s important to pass the budgets and that there will be a chance to revise them in a special session this summer if needed.

Section 57 of Alabama’s 1901 Constitution says: “The doors of each house shall be opened except on such occasions as, in the opinion of the house, may require secrecy, but no person shall be admitted to the floor of either house while the same is in session, except members of the legislature, the officers and employees of the two houses, the governor and his secretary, representatives of the press, and other persons to whom either house, by unanimous vote, may extend the privileges of its floor.”

Othni Lathram, director of the Legislative Services Agency, said Section 57 is one part of Alabama’s heavily amended Constitution that hasn’t changed. Lathram said he does not think it has been interpreted by a court.

Lathram said he thinks the intent is that the work of the Legislature should be as open and transparent as possible. He said he believes the plan for next week meets that standard considering the COVID-19 crisis.

“I guess the bottom line is, I can’t point to a case that says what we’re doing comports with Section 57,” Lathram said. “I think under the circumstances it does. And I think it’s kind of a best appropriate effort to get the business of the state done in as responsible a manner as possible under the circumstances.

Harris said people can meet with senators by appointment in the State House. Senators will escort their guests from the State House lobby to their offices and back.

Woodard said appointments with House members will have to be held somewhere other than the State House.

Social distancing is more of a challenge in in the House because it has 105 members to the Senate’s 35.

Woodard said about 53 House members will be spaced out in the chamber. Most of the rest will be seated in the gallery on the sixth floor. Two overflow rooms are also available.

Normally on legislative days, lobbyists wait in the hallways to speak to legislators and watch the proceedings from the galleries overlooking the House and Senate floor.

Jess Brown, a former professor of political science at Athens State University and a former lobbyist for the University of Alabama System and the city of Huntsville, said the live streaming is not a substitute for being inside the State House and having fast access to a copy of an amendment or watching the interactions between lawmakers that aren’t captured on the video.

“You can see a lot if you can see the rest of the room,” Brown said.

Brown said he understands the health crisis forced some change in procedures. He said it’s probably a close call whether virtual access, properly implemented, lives up to the intent of Section 57.

Brown said another possibility would be to rotate small groups from the public in for specific time slots, like he said was done for some of the Watergate proceedings.

Tom Dart, lobbyist for the Automobile Dealers Association of Alabama, said he believes legislative officials are trying to make the best of a tough situation and does not have a problem with the plan. Dart said it would be a concern if the Legislature was planning to consider a large number of bills on multiple topics. But legislative leaders have said they will stick mostly to the two budgets, local bills, and a bond issue for education.

“Everybody I’ve talked to is relieved they don’t have to go down there,” Dart said.